On 24 December, the movie Don’t Look Up began streaming on Netflix following a limited release in cinemas. It’s a satirical story, directed by Adam McKay, about what happens when a lowly PhD student (played by Jennifer Lawrence) and her supervisor (Leonardo DiCaprio) discover that an Everest-size asteroid is heading for Earth. What happens is that they try to warn their fellow Earthlings about this existential threat only to find that their intended audience isn’t interested in hearing such bad news.
The movie has been widely watched but has had a pasting from critics. It was, said the Observer’s Simran Hans, a “shrill, desperately unfunny climate-change satire”. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw found it a “laboured, self-conscious and unrelaxed satire… like a 145-minute Saturday Night Live sketch with neither the brilliant comedy of Succession… nor the seriousness that the subject might otherwise require”.
Those complaints about crudity and OTT-ness rang a bell. It just so happens that a distinctly over-the-top satire published in 1729 attracted comparable reactions. Its author, Jonathan Swift, was an Anglo-Irish clergyman who was dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Swift’s title – A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of Poor People from Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country and for Making Them Beneficial to the Publick – gives only a hint of the savagery of the satire within. For the nub of the proposal was that that the impoverished Irish might ease their economic troubles by selling their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies. “A young healthy child well nursed,” it reads, “is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricassee, or a ragout.”
You get the drift. Swift’s target was the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, often absentee landlords living on the rents of their desperately poor Irish tenantry while poncing about in Mayfair. McKay’s targets are more diffuse. He aims less at a specific class than an entire way of life – at people too stupefied by consumerism, short-termism and social media, too hypnotised by the interests of big tech corporations, to worry about the future of humankind.
Which brings us, oddly enough, to a contemporary obsession – the frenzy now surrounding non-fungible tokens or NFTs. For those who have not yet noticed this obsession, an NFT is basically a traceable code that is indelibly attached to a digital object such as an image or recording. Once someone has bought that object it becomes irrevocably registered to their ID and so they can be said to be owners of the code.
If it sounds abstruse, then that’s because it is. And yet, over the last 18 months or so, NFTs have become a sensation in the art world or, at any rate, in the part of it controlled by the big auction houses. Last June, Sotheby’s ran an auction of NFTs with prices ranging between $9,000 and $11m. In an earlier auction by Christie’s, a digital artwork by Mike Winkelmann, who calls himself Beeple, sold for $69m. Up to that point, Mr Winkelmann had never sold a print for more than a hundred bucks.
You can guess what this has triggered: an avalanche of wannabe Beeples, plus a lot of speculative hustlers who see a possibility of more modest jackpots for relatively little work (say a recording of your charming cat’s purr). Anyone can play at the game and there are useful DIY guides on the web for those interested in having a go.
So what’s not to like? Surely it’s a good thing that artists who have had a hard time earning a crust in the pandemic can get paid? It is. But there is one small snag: the technology that ensures that the NFT you’ve bought is a blockchain similar to the ones that power cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin or Ethereum. And the computation needed to provide the certification that is the USP of blockchains requires massive amounts of electricity, which comes with a correspondingly heavy carbon footprint. A single transaction on the Ethereum blockchain, for example, currently requires 232.51 kWh, which is equivalent to the power consumption of an average US household over 7.86 days.
If McKay decides that he’d like to have another go at Swiftian satire, there’s an opening for him here. Nero merely fiddled while Rome burned: we’re enthusiastically bidding for NFTs while heating up the planet.
What I’ve been reading
One more thing
Why I Traded My Fancy Climbing Gear for a Pair of Ramshackle Watches is a nice blogpost by Conrad Anker that will have meaning for anyone who is cursed (or blessed) with a collecting gene.
Back to the future
The great robotics expert Rodney Brooks does his annual review of the predictions he made in 2018.
The great escape
The Haunted California Idyll of German Writers in Exile is a lovely essay by Alex Ross in the New Yorker about the intellectuals and artists who fled Hitler and wound up in LA.