It is always illuminating to witness the mashup that occurs when staid and analytical software development spills out onto the psychedelic landscape of our popular culture. The weirdest news this month was that World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee sold a Non-Fungible Token (NFT) depicting the original web source code at Sotheby’s auction house for an unbelievable US$5.4 million.
It is always illuminating to witness the mashup that occurs when staid and analytical software development spills out onto the psychedelic landscape of our popular culture. The weirdest news this month was that World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee sold a Non-Fungible Token (NFT)  depicting the original web source code at Sotheby’s auction house for an unbelievable US$5.4 million .
The bidding started at a mere $1,000 – Sir Tim and the auctioneers apparently had no idea what they would get for the item. Then several bidders pushed the price up into the millions until one anonymous buyer with $5.4 million stood alone with a checkbook.
The popular press has added much confusion to this strange tale with their headlines proclaiming “Source code for original web browser sold at Sotheby’s.” In fact, no one sold the source code in the sense that we talk about it today. Selling the source code means selling the copyright for the code or, at a minimum, selling a license to it – neither of which occurred with the Sotheby’s transaction. As Berners-Lee points out, what he really sold was a “picture” of the source code, along with a letter and a little video that is supposed to look like the code getting typed in one line at a time.
The package that Sir Tim sold really had very little to do with programming and was more like a work of art – a selection of web-related mementos arranged in a curated collection. I’m not sure what purpose it has, other than to be rare.
When I first heard about this transaction, I felt some empathy for the naivete of the anonymous buyer (man, did you get taken!). Then, upon later reflection, it occurred to me that $5.4 million has a whole different meaning to a billionaire. If you had $50 billion in the bank (like all 20 of the 20 richest families), you could be making close to $5.4 million every single day, and even if you wanted to spend all that money, you’d never be able to do it.
But it isn’t really about the money. Throughout history, the rich have used their wealth to surround themselves with beautiful things, such as tapestries and oil paintings, partly because they appreciate the beauty, but also because expensive things are status markers – signs of power and prestige. It really doesn’t matter what the object is; all that matters is: Wow, he’s the guy who owns it!
In our high-velocity techno universe, the highest status of all goes to those who surf the wave of new technology and therefore beckon the rest of us to the dawn of a new beginning. Blockchain-based creations such as non-fungible tokens are a really great way to theatrically embrace the future, if you happen to have $5.4 million to get in the game.
In the end, everybody wins. Tim Berners-Lee gets to liberate some money from Anonymous, who’s not going to be able to spend it all, and Sir Tim has already said he will give the money to charity . Anonymous gets to “win” the auction, thus demonstrating that he/she has a visionary grasp of the NFT revolution and, for that matter, has more money than anyone else in the room. The rest of us don’t really give up anything, because no license is lost. The web still belongs to all of us just as it did before. And anyway, it isn’t like the Mona Lisa or a precious Brandenburg concerto are locked up inside this strong box – just a picture of some Objective-C code and a movie that shows the code getting typed in.
If NFTs catch on and this becomes one of the famous examples that everyone talks about, Anonymous might even turn a tidy profit for this bold and insightful investment. And, as seems equally likely, if the world chases a new rabbit next year and the bottom drops out of the market for NFTs, the buyer will probably still have plenty of money left for another trip to Sotheby’s.
Joe Casad, Editor in Chief