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Tuesday September 28th

'Visions of the future': UNC English class designs experiment about the value of NFTs

DTH Photo Illustration. Someone views Visions of the Future, a digital art project created by students in a UNC class during Spring 2021.
Buy Photos DTH Photo Illustration. Someone views Visions of the Future, a digital art project created by students in a UNC class during Spring 2021.

When students signed up for English 128: Major American Authors for the spring semester, most expected to study writers like Emerson and Thoreau. But instructor Katharine Henry, a doctoral student, added a new twist. 

Students in the class created a non-fungible token art collage and put it up for auction on eBay. The proceeds from the auction will be donated to the Innovate Carolina Dreamers-Who-Do Award, which provides funding for student innovators and entrepreneurs. 

Inspiration for the project

Henry was inspired by Tyler Cowen’s book “Average is Over” and some of literary study’s fundamental questions that focus on what it means to be an individual and a collective. Keeping these in mind, she decided the central theme of her class would be futurism. 

“We were looking at taking different approaches to different kinds of texts to think about how different people — futuristic economists, sci-fi writers and artists — are imagining what the future will be like,” Henry said.

About midway through the semester, non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, were buzzing on the internet. Henry said NFTs are proof of digital ownership, similar to a deed.

She used a car as an example: somebody could borrow her car to drive to work, but that doesn’t mean they own her car. She would still have the deed and legal ownership of it. The same concept can be applied to digital images, and NFTs are helping solve the problem of digital ownership. 

“If you make some kind of interesting artwork, and you put it online, anybody can right-click that image and copy it to their desktop," she said. "In a way, anyone who copies that file onto their computer becomes, sort of, the owner of that image.”

When an image has many potential owners and many copies of the image exist, it loses much of its value, said Henry.

"Visions of the Future"

Henry said she set up an interactive experiment to help her students better understand the concept. The class created a collage and put it up for sale on two sites, one normal bidding site and one NFT site in order to see the site where the art sold for a higher bid.

“The idea was for them to create a piece of art that captured a question, a feeling or an approach, or some kind of vision of the future and as abstract or realistic as they wished,” she said. “Pulling all these together in a single collage, we titled it ‘Visions of the Future.’” 

Griffin Sansbury, a junior in the class, said students used various mediums to create images that represented their ideas of the future. He took a photo of a family dinner and replaced the people with technologies such as an artificial intelligence robot, an Amazon Alexa and a computer to represent the interplay between family dynamics and technology.

Rising graduate student Cesar Reyes created a travel poster for his portion of the collage. Resembling an old poster for a national park in a colorful, hand-drawn style, his poster was an advertisement for outer space. They had discussed space exploration in relation to capitalism in the class, he said.

Henry’s out-of-the-box approach was not lost on the students.

“She had a lot of great ideas and came in with a lot of enthusiasm despite it being an early morning class — like a 10 a.m. class. She was very engaging. She was a great instructor,” Reyes said.

With the money they made, the students wanted to reinvest into technology within UNC. Sansbury said the class chose to donate the money to the Innovate Carolina Dreamers-Who-Do Award.

Bidding on eBay ended with the art selling for $103.50. The artwork is up for auction on the NFT marketplace OpenSea until May 30, where the top bid is $7 as of Sunday. Henry said the popularity of traditional auction sites, like eBay, might be the reason for the difference in bids.

To bid on or view the project, click here.

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