This Week in Doonesbury: “Still a Few Bugs in the System,” or GBT Does NFTs

I have a Google alert that notifies me when there’s news about Doonesbury or Garry Trudeau. Last week, the app sent me an ad for an auction of  a series of Doonesbury-branded NFTs, or non-fungible tokens. NFTs, simply put, are a kind of exclusive electronic “print” of a piece of artwork, and they are a development about which people have strong opinions.

While nowhere near as hardcore about it as Bill Waterson, who has pretty much never sold anything bearing the likenesses of Calvin or Hobbes (any Calvin and Hobbes merch you see is probably fraudulent), GBT has always been judicious about merchandising his comic strip. A rare instance of Trudeau engaging in purely commercial marketing of his work was some Doonesbury-branded Starbucks swag that came out a few years back (…I have a couple of pieces that Garry was kind enough to send me). Trudeau also regularly does the artwork for his hometown Saranac Lake Winter Carnival, and he has lent his characters’ likenesses to charity fundraising campaigns.

Knowing that GBT is largely averse to selling “Doonesbury by-products” (as he once quoted a reader describing comic-strip merchandise), and having read how NFTs are often based on stolen intellectual property, I actually sent the link to Trudeau’s syndicate so they could deal with what I thought was an unscrupulous attempt to make money off of his work.

Imagine my surprise the next day when GBT’s social-media stand in, Roland Burton Hedley Jr, tweeted a link to that same auction, with a note from Trudeau describing how he and his syndicate had hooked up with an outfit called Heritage Auctions to sell NFTs of some classic Doonesbury strips and other Trudeau artwork to raise funds for International Medical Corps, a humanitarian NGO currently working to support internally-displaced people in Ukraine.

Predictably, a handful of people replied to Roland’s tweet, criticizing GBT for getting involved with NFTs, a piece of technology that critics deride for a number of reasons. For starters, NFTs incur substantial environmental costs because the servers they require use a boatload of energy. Moreover, NFTs have not delivered anywhere near the promised financial dividends to most artists (according to one report, “about half of all NFTs that sell go for less than $400”), and there are numerous complaints from artists who have had their material ripped off to create NFTs. There is also an aesthetic critique lodged against NFTs, which often take the form of derivative variations on superficial works, best seen in the ubiquitous “Bored Ape” series, which …

…are made by taking a base image and algorithmically adding randomized attributes to generate numerous lucrative new versions — a fun gimmick, but not necessarily one that’s bound to preserve a value of hundreds of thousands of dollars over time.

Beyond questions of art and commerce, however, NFTs have become a flashpoint in the broader ongoing culture war, largely because they have their roots in the world of cryptocurrencies and their biggest advocates, the tech-bros who, over the past decade or so, have been drifting increasingly rightward. 

There are still elements of the ongoing social-technological revolution that can trace their roots to the kind of liberationist techno-utopianism articulated by thinkers like Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, and John Perry Barlow, the Grateful Dead lyricist,  founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and author of  “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” a manifesto that envisioned the Internet as “a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth.”

In practice, however, instead of a technology that facilitates human liberation, the Internet has in many ways  become a technology dedicated chiefly to corporate enrichment. Moreover, one of the chief sociological legacies of the Internet as we know it today is the creation of a new generation of robber barons who are keen to use their economic power to shape politics in decidedly non-progressive ways: Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and was an early investor in Facebook, has become an important financier for a variety of MAGA-related initiatives, and, of course, Tesla/SpaceX founder Elon Musk is spending billions of dollars to buy Twitter in a move that looks like his chief desire is to “own the libs” by facilitating the propagation of hate speech in the guise of free expression.

Moreover, at a time when people are working harder for less money in an economic environment defined for many by inflation and housing insecurity, NFTs, like billionaires going off to space, have become a convenient stand-in for justifiable attacks on an obscene kind of conspicuous consumption that underlines the inequality that defines our current Gilded Age. It’s hard for working people to embrace a development that typically makes headlines because someone has spent tens of millions of dollars on what is essentially an image on a hard drive. 

Seen in those contexts, it’s easy to understand why, perhaps, it seems like NFTs and Doonesbury make for somewhat strange bedfellows. 

All of that said, Trudeau’s auction is, in some ways, addressing some of the problematic aspects of the NFT phenomenon. Unsurprisingly, the Doonesbury NFT collection at least attempts to deal with the environmental question: according to Trudeau’s note, Heritage Auctions is using a platform that is committed to achieving carbon neutrality this year. Plus, unlike many NFT projects that seem to be driven by a desire to create a kind of effortless profit by making huge amounts of money out of virtually nothing, the NFTs Trudeau has on offer are based on historically-significant artistic pieces, including critical strips like “Guilty, Guilty, Guilty!” (probably Trudeau’s single most famous work) and “A Baby Woman!” . And of course, this is not a profit-driven endeavor: the whole project fits into a long history of artists and wealthy benefactors coming together to support decent causes.

Most interesting to me, however, is how the Doonesbury NFTs fit into a thematic element that has been present in the comic since literally the very first strip: the way computing and information tech has  shaped our lives over the last half century. I will be doing a long series about Trudeau’s writing about technology at some point, but for now I’ll just point out that Doonesbury began with B.D. waiting to meet his “computer-selected” roommate, only to discover that there were “still a few bugs in the system..” As the strip evolved, technology became a vein Trudeau would regularly mine: a subsequent arc found Mark working a summer job as a computer programmer, and later story-lines introduced readers to now-ubiquitous technological phenomena like word processing, virtual communities, and online shopping, 

“Still a few bugs in the system,” Doonesbury, 26 October 1970

I hesitate to draw any hard conclusions about Garry Trudeau as a person from his work as a cartoonist, and I definitely want this project to be focused on Trudeau’s political commentary and social criticism, not on his biography. That said, looking at his long history of writing about emerging technologies, I think I’m on pretty safe ground to assume that Trudeau has always been pretty geeked about new tech and follows developments in that world with deep interest, and not just because it makes for good material for the strip. 

In other words, I’m not sure how seriously to take Trudeau when he writes “If you’re like me, you really haven’t a clue what an NFT is.” 

I take all of the above-mentioned criticisms of NFTs seriously, but, to be honest, we all have to pick our battles, and the NFT debate isn’t one that I’m sufficiently invested in to have any really strong feelings about one way or the other. Trudeau has always demonstrated a careful approach to the marketing of his work, and his writing shows that he’s no techophobe. If he thinks this a worthwhile project that will help people in great need, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and play along.

So I’m going to put a bid in on one of the lots, mostly to get the print that comes with the NFT. Money’s tight, though, and I imagine I’ll get outbid, which, of course, will only benefit the cause.

If you’re interested in owning your own Doonesbury NFT, the auction is here, and runs until 14 July.

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