You know you’re old when...

If I’m going to be honest, they may finally have come up with something I don’t understand.  And to be clear, that’s not meant to be a brag.  There are lots of things I don’t know, either because I haven’t been exposed to them or I don’t care.  As an example, I don’t know the difference between a diesel engine and a gasoline engine or why each requires a different type of fuel.  But more to the point, I don’t care.  However, in writing this post I Googled the two types of engines, read about them, and said to myself, “oh, I see.”  I still don’t care.

NFTs

But with all the talk these days of cryptocurrency, the blockchain, and NFTs (non-fungible tokens), and even the former First Lady, Melania Trump, selling NFTs, I was beginning to feel like my 92 year-old father must have felt when my sister swiped her card in the card reader at the gas pump and didn’t go “inside” to hand the clerk behind the counter a crisp twenty dollar bill and say, “can I get twenty bucks on pump number four?”  A few days before Christmas, I asked an old friend I’d written a lot of computer code with back in the 90’s who was visiting me, and who makes a handsome living today developing and maintaining a subscription-based web application he and his wife invented for children to safely use the Internet, to explain the blockchain to me over tacos and margaritas.

He used words, English words, words which on their own I comprehend — I speak, read, and write English.  But I didn’t understand a word he said.  He has a peculiar (as in ‘unique,' not ‘strange') way of beginning his sentences fast and then slowing down toward the end of them, but it wasn’t that — I grew up with him and have known him for more than 41 years, so I’m used to it.  As teenagers, we used to annoy everyone around us by emphasizing the wrong syllable in common words, like “let’s go to burBANK to get panCAKES.”  But the disconnect wasn’t in a long-ago-abandoned way of speaking from our youth.  To put it bluntly, he could have been speaking Mandarin, or German, or Klingon for all I know.

I remember when the Internet was just coming into its own around, say, 1995.  Its promise was that it was “decentralized.”  I had accounts on Compuserve and America Online (AOL), but these were like all-inclusive resorts where you get your food, your entertainment, and your amenities included, but you only get what one or the other provides; if you’re on Compuserve and you want to use the Gay and Lesbian Community Forum (GLCF) on AOL, you can’t, unless you logout of the former and connect/login to the latter.

The old 3-step AOL login — (1) modem dialup (2) modem negotiation and connection (3) connected to AOL

Decentralization was the concept that once you connected to the Internet, things like the GLCF would be standalone, hosted on a server somewhere accessible by everybody.  A complex system of 256-bit numeric addresses (called IP or "Internet Protocol" addresses) identified each server (node) and a naming scheme (called DNS or “domain name system”) translated easy-to-remember/use names (such as matthewwilkinson.net) into their numeric equivalents (68.66.224.43).  That’s a cursory and drastically oversimplified description of the Internet which today goes by the shorthand of “web1.”  “web2” in terms of the Internet centralized everything into platforms (think Facebook, or Twitter) while still remaining distributed, so while it seems like you're logging directly in to something like Facebook, you’re actually connecting via an ISP (“Internet Service Provider”) in, say, burBANK and routers are passing your traffic to Facebook’s server(s) in Phoenix (or Chicago or Hoboken… I don’t know where they are); simultaneously, the same connection allows you access to Twitter, or matthewwilkinson.net.  You do not have a direct connection to any of these, as you had when your modem dialed-up AOL and connected you to it.  So you can tweet a picture of your sandwich, read this post, and like someone’s cat meme on Facebook all from the same connection.

And here is where I have to raise my hand and pull a confused face, because we are now entering what is being called “web3," the general thesis of which seems to be that web1 was decentralized, web2 centralized everything into platforms, and web3 will decentralize everything again; web3 is supposed to give us the richness of web2, but decentralized.  How?  I cannot conceptualize this anymore than I understand my friend’s description of the blockchain, or how if I buy Mrs. Trump’s non-fungible token it is not a thing in a place but rather many things in many places costing me $150.

Wait, what?

I feel like my dad at the gas station, or like a man at the end of the Stone Age who is perfectly happy with his sharp stick and his flint watching everyone from his village rush to the clearing by the stream to hear some young buck from the village by the cliff talk about bronze and something called smelting.  I think of all those times I sniggered quietly to myself when my mom turned off her cell phone because she wasn’t using it and didn’t want to waste it, or one of my neighbors thought I was a witch because I could pause live tv, rewind it, and play part of a broadcast over.  Without a VCR!  And as I get ready to celebrate my 56th birthday in three months, I realize that I am old.  40 was not as traumatic as everyone said it would be, 50 was a triumph because my AIDS diagnosis meant my doctors told me I’d never see it.  And now here I am and I still cannot figure out what a non-fungible token is or why anyone would want one.

The eyes are the NFT.  Nope, me neither.


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