A Computational Model of Old Junk

Everyone has an image of the archetypal computer nerd. Sitting permanently hunched over a keyboard, Mountain Dew by their side, they write Unix shell scripts late into the night. But there is a much rarer species of computer nerd that doesn’t draw as much attention. Members of this species are called theoretical computer scientists, or theorists.

A typical theoretical computer scientist.

Theorists are basically mathematicians who want to understand the essence of computation. They don’t spend much time at the computer. Instead, they go for walks and daydream about the Church-Turing thesis, often bumping into things in the process.

Every theorist desires to have a simply-stated open problem to noodle over. Sure, you can efficiently test whether a number is prime if you have access to a source of randomness. But can you do it without randomness? These are the types of questions that keep them up at night.

Don’t get me wrong, the work of theorists often leads to major practical advances. But many enter the field just because the theory of computation is so damn beautiful. I know this from personal experience.

A lot of NFTs look like this.

So why would someone who spends their days pondering the mysteries of computation want to waste their time learning about NFTs? Surely, these scammy, overpriced, ugly jpeg collections don’t merit the brain cycles of the world’s geniuses! At the risk of mockery, will try to make the case that they do.

A Beautiful Canvas

There was a massive NFT bubble in 2021, and throughout that time, strawman-laden articles were published about all the scams, hacks, and silly projects in the space. Less was written about the small minority of high-quality projects. Even less recognition was given to the fact that the real beauty lies in the infrastructure itself.

Take Ethereum, which is the blockchain I have spent the most time studying. It allows for computer programs to be run on a global, decentralized computer. It’s basically public, censorship-resistant computation. The Ethereum blockchain is an ever-growing collection of immutable programs, otherwise known as smart contracts. Anyone can interact with a smart contract, and the resulting state update is permanently etched onto the blockchain, alongside the contract itself.

It’s a whole new way of doing computing, and it tickles my theorist brain. There are costs attached to different operations, restrictions on code updates, and malicious actors to contend with. All kinds of new puzzles and challenges!

Digital Ownership

Among other things, this new form of computing enables a new kind of digital ownership. In fact, it is quite simple to implement ownership using a smart contract. Imagine a mapping from public Ethereum addresses to data of some kind (images, game items, hashes, etc.). Define the owner of the data to be the address associated with it. An owner can transfer ownership by swapping their address out for another one.

This new digital ownership is something very special, but I don’t view it in quite the same way as other “web3” enthusiasts. They rave about future possibilities: recording the deed to a house on the blockchain or building a complex 3-D metaverse. I think the blockchain will play some kind of role in future society, but none of that gets me too excited. Rather, I’m captivated by the idea that we’ve created a new past.

Think of the scope of our efforts to preserve history in the physical world. We unearth old cities, dig up dinosaur fossils, and display primitive tools in museums. To say that these efforts are a big deal is an understatement. And now, for the first time in history, we can collect digital relics.

The Archaeological Dig

As a theorist, I don’t like to get my hands dirty, and fortunately, there’s no dirt involved in the search for digital relics. I’ve found it to be quite clean and enjoyable. Of the millions of spots where you can write your address on the blockchain, you must identify the few special ones using a combination of logic and aesthetic sense.

The most important facet to consider is the timestamp. Older is generally better. It may seem silly to deem an item from 2015 an ancient relic, but if you consider the exponential growth in ownable items from then to now, it’s an apt metaphor.

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A tile from the Etheria project of 2015.

Of course, even if you own something old, the the integrity of the ownership chain can be up for debate. On the Namecoin blockchain, there is a notion of expiration and renewal, and there are endless arguments on Discord about whether expiration equals the death of a digital item. I’m not well versed in all the details, but the fact that these debates are happening at all is incredibly cool.

Another aspect to consider is the associated data (e.g. image), if there is any. You can also take into account the creator, and whether the project represented a novel advance at the time.

An exquisite error in the 2016 PixelMap project.

In addition (and this is the coolest part for me), there are all these weird little details in the smart contract code. For example, the PixelMap creator forgot that his array started at zero and not one, so his grid of ownable tiles has a special tile floating around outside of the grid. How cool is that for a digital artifact! I also wrote about a fateful “=” and “==” mixup in the 2017 Ether Rock project here.

This digging activity is very new, and is just a handful of nerds in the world doing it. I recently uncovered a fungible token contract on Ethereum that had a transfer event at least once per year from 2015 through 2022. It’s probably the only such token out of tens of thousands of tokens, and I’m sure that I’m the only person in the world to have noticed that key detail!

Where We’re Headed

In my past life, I hung out with theoretical computer scientists. They hang art on their walls. They listen to classical music. But as far as I can tell, they’re not in the market for NFTs. Why doesn’t Lance Fortnow have a genesis Mooncat as his profile picture? Why doesn’t Cynthia Dwork have a Curio Card hanging on her living room wall? It seems like this kind of art would resonate with them, as it has with me.

It’s fun to fantasize about the eventual widespread appreciation for these digital relics. Maybe the thirty or so people I chat with every day are a group of true visionaries. Perhaps in the future, people will look back and wish they could have been one of us, the same way people wish they were in early on Amazon or Bitcoin. Or maybe this is all complete lunacy. Only time will tell.

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