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Cryptocurrency expert slams NFT hype

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

If you watch TV at all, then you've already seen the ads - and if you watch the Super Bowl tonight, you'll surely see more - advertisements encouraging you - one might say, pushing you - to get involved in cryptocurrency. That's digital currency traded and managed in a decentralized way, almost entirely online. A lot of celebrities have gotten involved in pushing it, along with NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, often in the form of unique art or images that can be sold and traded for a lot of money. Some have fetched millions of dollars.

But one Canadian YouTuber, Dan Olson, says NFTs and cryptocurrency more broadly, while incredibly popular, are a big scam. Earlier this month, he went viral in a two-hour YouTube video. It's called Line Goes Up: The Problem With NFTs, in which he breaks down different issues with NFTs and cryptocurrency more broadly. And so thinking you might be inundated with those other messages tonight, we've called him to ask him to share his perspective. Dan Olson, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DAN OLSON: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So if you could break this down into simple terms for our listeners - because I'm thinking some people might have already kind of gone all in and some people really don't know what this is all about. So I'm just going to ask you as simply as you can, what are NFTs, and why have they become so popular in recent months?

OLSON: The simplest form of it is that they're digital objects that use cryptocurrency as the backbone to give them a form of scarcity. And the reason why they're popular is largely just stemming out of the fact that cryptocurrency can't really be used for much, and NFTs are one of the first things that's legal that they can be used for.

MARTIN: Your YouTube video is basically a takedown of the whole idea of NFTs and cryptocurrency. And I want to mention it's got nearly 5 million views and growing. And in the video, you call both a bubble. You say it's going to - and one that is going to burst in a really dramatic way. Is the main problem here that, A, there's no underlying value - nothing actually exists - and, B, it's a mechanism of investment that is outside of any oversight?

OLSON: The second point is, I think, more fair. Like, the first point's not wrong. It's not wrong to say that, like, there really is no underlying value to, like, bitcoin and Ethereum, and a lot of this stuff is just, like, smoke. And then the harder point is that second one, which is the sophisticated, like, ideological, political goals of the system, which is to, you know, really go all in on this, like, anti-government, anti-structure, anti-taxes, anti-social services, anti-safety net, anti-consumer protection philosophy of, like, how the world should be run. And I think that's ultimately just, like, deeply destructive to the fabric of our society.

MARTIN: What about the argument that this is kind of everyman investing? What do you say to that?

OLSON: So it's like, is this an easier entry point for regular people to get into investing? Well, sure, if you torture the definition of, like, what investing is, because you're not really, like - you're not investing in a company that's going to, you know, survive based off of its ability to generate a good product that people want to use for a reasonable price at a, you know, fair market rate or, you know, based off of intangibles like, hey, they treat their employees well. They've got good wages. They, you know, produce, like, meaningful, uplifting jobs. You know, then that company does well and pays out dividends. You're basically gambling on like, OK, is someone in the future going to be willing to pay more for this for reasons that I don't particularly care about or, you know, need to be concerned about - question mark, question mark, question mark. You're rolling the dice on it.

And sort of the only compelling counterargument that I have run into against that is this, like, well, you're kind of just describing, like, you know - you're describing a lot of tech stocks, if you word it that way, to which my response is like, yeah, this is not just a crypto problem. Like, crypto is just this very outsized expression of a lot of problems that our systems already have.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, it's interesting. You were telling me earlier that one of the reasons you got interested in this is you're the target demographic for this. I mean, you know what I mean?

OLSON: Yeah. absolutely.

MARTIN: Do you have friends who are in your same group? And if you've raised these questions, what do they say? Like, what do you - what's the appeal of it? Is it just kind of like the trendy thing? People are afraid of missing out. It's like FOMO or - do you know what I mean?

OLSON: The ad push, the ad spam, the bot spam, the messaging around, like, oh, you've got to get in now, you've got to get in early, it's going to go to the moon, this is going to take off, it's the future. All of that messaging - it's the exact same kind of financial predation that we've seen over and over and over again through, you know, things like gambling, payday loan industry is like - it's all ramped up to 11 and being just hammered at us day in and day out.

Super Bowl is going to be just absolutely wall to wall with that. And you're going to have, you know, 10 straight minutes of Matt Damon calling you a coward if you are scared of losing all of your money. You know, that's an extremely old tactic that's targeted - you know, I said, like, target demographic. It's targeted at people like me. It's targeted at, like, insecure white men who are, you know, like - for centuries, you can get great results just by challenging the bravery, challenging someone, like, challenging men on their manliness and saying this, like, well, you're not a real man if you're not engaging in these risky behaviors. It's an extremely effective, you know, tried and true marketing technique. So it's no surprise that it's getting rolled out for, you know, this stuff.

MARTIN: That was Dan Olson. He is a YouTube creator, and his channel is called Folding Ideas. Dan, thanks so much for talking with us today.

OLSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.