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Tim Berners-Lee said the World Wide Web was for everyone, so why has he sold its source code as an NFT?

29 June 2021

This piece was published before the NFT of the source code for the World Wide fetched $5.4m at Sotheby’s this week.

Over the past week, collectors have been placing initial bids on the source code for Tim Berners-Lee’s World Wide Web, auctioned online by Sotheby’s as an NFT. With a starting price of $1,000, the package includes time-stamped files of code written between 1990 and 1991, an animated visualisation and a poster of the code and a letter by Berners-Lee reflecting on the writing process. Sotheby’s interest feels straightforward – how could a traditional auction house resist getting involved with such a symbolic digital artefact? – but eyebrows have been raised at the involvement of Berners-Lee, who famously said of his invention, ‘This is for everyone’, and has never previously profited directly from it (proceeds from this sale will go to unnamed initiatives supported by him and his wife).

Autographed poster representing the full code created by Tim Berners-Lee.

Autographed poster representing the full code created by Tim Berners-Lee. Courtesy Sotheby’s

Feeling the need to defend himself, it seems, Berners-Lee confirmed to the Guardian that the source code won’t leave the public domain. He added, ‘If they felt that me selling an NFT of a poster is inappropriate, then what about me selling a book? I do things like that, which involve money, but the free and open web is still free and open.’ According to digital artist Ben Grosser, this comparison misses the wider context. ‘To take a symbol for the ideals of the web and turn it into a financial investment instrument within cryptocurrency markets ignores the dramatic difference between what we hope the web could be and what big tech has turned it into,’ he says. Art historian and curator Tina Rivers Ryans adds, ‘We need to have a conversation about how NFTs relate to the idea of a free and open web. The rhetoric around blockchain is that it’s a completely decentralised technology but there are limits to that, as represented by NFT platforms which are a centralised service.’

Grosser’s project Tokenize This (2021) will be exhibited in a solo exhibition at Arebyte Gallery in August. The work generates an endless stream of unique objects that disappear for ever once the browser is closed, making them impossible to share or mint as NFTs. As the artificial scarcity that NFTs place on digital objects is pushed to its logical extreme, it ultimately becomes useless, emphasising the importance of free access. It is this that makes many natives of the digital realm anxious to defend their space from notions of ownership.

‘When people are spending millions of dollars on these certificates of ownership, eventually they’re going to want to start having control over the objects themselves,’ Grosser says. ‘It’s naive to presume that that isn’t coming down the road.’ Ryan concedes that ‘there might be something useful about the idea that cultural heritage can be monetised without being privatised, but it is fundamentally a system premised on the model of ownership’.

Those most resistant to this model won’t find common ground with an auction house that is no doubt keen to take part in a market that could otherwise pose a threat. For those who welcome the chance to acquire digital artefacts, Cassandra Hatton, head of Sotheby’s new Science and Pop Culture department, believes the sale is a watershed moment for assigning these items their proper value. ‘NFT technology has enabled us to certify authenticity and provenance,’ she explains. It is not obvious what authenticity needs establishing in the case of Berners-Lee’s well-documented invention, but Hatton outlines some other potentially useful applications beyond the digital. Where value derives from provenance rather than from a physical object itself, as is the case for items that have travelled in space, high-res scans could be attached to NFTs and used as a proof more reliable than paperwork.

Hatton also hopes to do away with the idea of NFTs as a distinct collecting category. ‘When people say [they] collect NFTs, what does that mean? Is it really an NFT you care about or the object tied to the NFT?’ Instead of NFT collectors, then, you might have someone who collects manuscripts, some of which happen to be NFTs. ‘Sir Tim didn’t create this with the intention of it becoming an NFT,’ Hatton adds. ‘I’m never working with a scientist who wrote a manuscript yesterday and then throwing it in an auction. I’m looking at things that were created decades or centuries ago and have had a profound historic impact. It’s the same thing here.’

The cultural value of Berners-Lee’s source code is not in doubt, but its sale has intensified a culture clash between the old guard, and their systems of ownership, and the aspirations of those invested in a free and open internet. Ryan suggests that the inclusion of a poster and video may function to transform the code into an artwork, making it easier to monetise. ‘Art is being instrumentalised to inflate the value of a particular technology just as much, and perhaps more, than the other way around,’ she says.

Nonetheless, the crypto art market has shrunk since the sale of Beeple’s magnum opus for $69m at Christie’s in March. Ryan says of the Sotheby’s sale, ‘This auction is raising the question of what is the appropriate way to acknowledge coding as a creative act and compensate technologists.’ The winning bid should give some indication of what stock buyers are willing to set by digital artefacts.