Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
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Collectors’ Items Are Now on the Blockchain

When I was growing up, trading cards were all the rage. They mostly centered on baseball but trading cards for every major sport emerged. The Topps Company has long had the lead in baseball cards, with Fleer and Upper Deck trailing far behind. Recently, Topps made a radical move into the digital sector by making some of its trading cards available via the WAX blockchain.

WAX stands for Worldwide Asset eXchange. WAX is a blockchain (i.e., cryptocurrency) system that is geared around the buying, selling, and trading of virtual items. Previously, WAX was primarily used to trade goods within gaming platforms. For instance, the massively multiplayer economic strategy game Prospectors utilized WAX to allow users to trade items.

However, in the last few months, WAX has expanded to cover major collectors’ items as well. Topps has been recently trying to reinvigorate their Garbage Pail Kids brand in a variety of ways. In 2019 they issued a series of limited run special collectors’ edition cards (including one based on Elon Musk’s Cybertruck reveal mishap, where supposedly impact-proof windows were smashed). Now, in 2020, they are taking many of their old cards from the 1980s and re-releasing them on the WAX blockchain.

Not only that, but William Shatner has also gotten in on the game. Shatner will be releasing never-before-seen photos and other memorabilia on the blockchain.

The blockchain will ensure that the “owner” of any piece of memorabilia is clearly marked. That is, if you “own” a Garbage Pail Kid card, or a William Shatner photo, that ownership is marked on the blockchain. If you decide to sell or trade it, the change in ownership is also marked, so the blockchain knows who is the owner of any particular piece. The virtual item dealers can limit the number of items that go into circulation, making owning one more valuable.

That said, it isn’t entirely clear what the advantage of digital memorabilia is. Much of what made memorabilia worthwhile was the physical aesthetics. The cards were valuable not only because they were rare, but because people cared about them enough to keep them in good shape. They represented not just the scarcity, but the experience of their being with the owner. These advantages are not present in digital memorabilia because bits don’t fade over time. Neither are they really with you, either. Additionally, to make “copies” you can simply screenshot the photos. This doesn’t grant the new person “ownership” on the blockchain, but it is difficult to see how that would matter in the long run.

The photo is what is fun. The bookkeeping entry isn’t as much. In fact, it reminds me somewhat of the Mac vs PC ad Apple did many years back where it compared itself to a PC. The Apple had photos of vacations, and the PC had spreadsheets about the vacation.

Clearly, the photo itself was the point. The accounting might serve some purpose, but it is certainly secondary to the reality.

Will this new endeavor work? It’s hard to say. This could be groundbreaking in providing a new locale for digital goods—or it could be the high water mark of digitization, where we all realize that “digital” was a means, not an end.

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Jonathan Bartlett

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Jonathan Bartlett is a senior software R&D engineer at Specialized Bicycle Components, where he focuses on solving problems that span multiple software teams. Previously he was a senior developer at ITX, where he developed applications for companies across the US. He also offers his time as the Director of The Blyth Institute, focusing on the interplay between mathematics, philosophy, engineering, and science. Jonathan is the author of several textbooks and edited volumes which have been used by universities as diverse as Princeton and DeVry.

Collectors’ Items Are Now on the Blockchain