Spencer Kaplan

The View from Berlin: Why Physical Place Matters in the Study of Virtual Goods, Markets, and Worlds

July 2022

I’m currently in Berlin, where I’m conducting ethnographic fieldwork among the city’s NFT community, including artists, collectors, technologists, and entrepreneurs. In other words, I’m studying this globally distributed technology from a single physical setting—one with a distinctive geography, history, and ethos. Based on what I’ve seen here so far, I’d argue that when it comes to the study of virtual goods, markets, and worlds, attention to actors’ physical rootedness is critical, if not necessary, as a dimension of analysis. This argument remains preliminary, but I’m offering it here as a kind of provocation—a call to work against the grain of the virtual.

Berlin’s NFT community is rather unique compared to what we often see in public commentary. In-person NFT events, which number here at least 4 or 5 a week, include meetups, gallery exhibitions, hackathons, and education sessions. These events require immense amounts of labor to cultivate, often relying on unpaid community managers, but here they’re considered essential to any NFT project. Berlin has long been a city of artists, and accordingly, the city’s NFT scene tends to favor NFT art, often in editions of 1, over what my interlocutors here might call “mere collectibles” or “silly apes” sold for speculation or profile pictures. The events often occupy what German Studies scholar Andreas Huyssen calls the “voids of Berlin.” These voids are spaces cleared away by Berlin’s history of war and division. They were squatted by the city’s creatives in the 80s and 90s and hosted its world renown visual art and techno music communities. In one such void today is Go!Berlin, the city’s first physical NFT museum. Its organizers first squatted the building in what was once West Berlin’s downtown area, and recently negotiated an official lease with the city. These spaces are often filled with the sound of techno, and exhibitions follow with raves at clubs like Tresor, one of the city’s earliest and leading techno clubs, itself originally opened in the former “death zone” surrounding the wall by Potsdamer Platz. These spaces and the creative energy they cultivate brand Berlin as a destination for artists, entrepreneurs, and tourists. Now, they convince many that Berlin can be, I quote, Europe’s “capital for NFTs.” Here, local artists find new platforms for their work, collectors can “buy local,” so to speak, and mint NFTs in-person, and entrepreneurs can sell their nascent projects—all of this amid the spaces and sounds of a city saturated with its all too recent history.

The objects and projects that emerge here then circulate digitally and globally, but they remain products of their place. As such they encode Berlin’s history, ethos, and, quite frankly, brand into the metaverse. Local collectors build virtual “voids of Berlin” to display their NFTs. One collector’s metaverse gallery is called “the factory,” which according to its description, is “located on the outskirts of Berlin…used to manufacture steel during the second world war, and has been dormant for the past 37 years.” (Never mind that the digital platform hosting this factory-turned-virtual gallery is just over a year old.) And a project called Mauer, referring to the Berlin Wall in German, is selling NFT pieces of a virtual Berlin Wall. This simulates the real Wall’s fall in 1989 when locals and tourists picked off pieces of their own to collect as relics of history. Many pieces were then sold at auction. The Mauer project is now making a virtual Berlin on the Sandbox metaverse, complete with Eastern and Western sides. This venture resembles the DDR Museum in central Berlin, which features similarly immersive and digitally enhanced exhibits of East Berlin apartment blocks. You can even buy pieces of the real Berlin Wall in the gift shop.

So, what does this show us? First, we see that one kind of market distribution, say the share of NFTs that are art vs collectibles, does not scale proportionally across physical geography, so even NFT markets have their local flavors. Second, we witness what is often missed online—the spontaneous encounters that come with sharing physical space, which as I said, are considered critical for web3 development but require lots of labor to enable. And third, we see what really drives the numbers of the market—the narratives and imaginaries inspired by and modeled after what happens or what has happened on the physical ground. We are turned away from the now classic questions like money’s definition or decentralization’s true reality—which remain important—and we instead encounter one city’s materiality, sociality, and the ghosts, or Geists, of its history.

My fieldwork in Berlin was generously funded by the MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale.

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