The foundation of the web is worth $5.4 million, apparently. In an online auction at Sotheby’s today, founder of the modern internet Tim Berners-Lee sold an NFT of the source code for the World Wide Web, which he authored in 1989. Berners-Lee has said he plans to donate the money to yet-unspecified charitable causes. The price represents nearly twice the value of Jack’s first tweet and ten times as much as the Disaster Girl meme but 1/12th of Beeple’s collection of 5,000 digital images because large sums of money make no sense.
$5.4 million, plus “Sotheby’s,” may sound revolting to proponents of a free and open internet. But Berners-Lee seems to recognize the NFT market as an ideal place to warehouse the rich so that they don’t actually buy the web. “I’m not even selling the source code,” he told the Guardian last week. “I’m selling a picture that I made, with a Python programme that I wrote myself, of what the source code would look like if it was stuck on the wall and signed by me.” Sort of like dangling a chew toy in front of the rich to distract them from fucking with the actual object. Down the road, the market theoretically walls off a speculative secondary market that can do minimal collateral damage, aside from wealth hoarding. (And hastening climate change through carbon pollution, which isn’t a small issue. While NFTs represent a minor slice of the Ethereum blockchain, carbon market advisor Andrew Bonneau told Artnews that a single NFT may expel as much as a commercial jet does in one hour. But the energy expense ends at the mining stage.)
In a quote on Sotheby’s site, Berners-Lee described NFTs as “the most appropriate means of ownership that exists” and “the ideal way to package the origins behind the web.”
After all, the anonymous buyer got virtually nothing. Berners-Lee pushed early to make the nearly 10,000 lines of code publicly available, and you can look at it on Sotheby’s right now in animated form. That was the spirit of its creation; Berners-Lee released it to the public domain in 1993 and has famously advocated for net neutrality, warning that increasing privatization for profit squashes the principle of the web as an equal platform. The buyer also got (an NFT of) a video of Berners-Lee’s original time-stamped files, his letter reflecting on the creation, and a “poster” version of the code.
The only thing that doesn’t change is that auction houses keep raking in the cash—in this case, Sotheby’s take in the sale comes out to around $900,000.