Textbooks as NFTs: an idea whose time is gone

Three years ago, the powers-that-be at Pearson announced that they were moving to a "Netflix-like" subscription model for their textbook sales. This week, Pearson's CEO decided to use another tech-related term to describe his company's business model: Pearson's textbooks, he said, were going to be sold as NFTs.

There are many reasons to doubt the shelf life of this statement - chief among them being the context of it: earnings calls, and CEO comments around their companies' financial results, are usually a smoke-and-mirrors show (we'll debate an off-the-cuff remark about NFTs until the cows come home, and none of us will devote any time to analysing the actual financial results, because TL;DR).

But just in case I ever get tempted to sell any of my content as NFTs, here's a post you can then quote right back at me: a list of reasons why selling textbooks as NFTs is a no-good, super-bad idea.

Disclosure: I've worked on several digital projects related to Pearson educational products. I'm also selling my own online courses. This post is not a dig at Pearson or any other publisher - it's a critique of an idea which happened to be recently floated by Pearson, as reported above.

1. Tracking all learners, and all learning, all the time

I'll just let Andy Bird summarize what he said about his plan: "(...) technology like blockchain and NFTs allows us to participate in every sale of that particular item as it goes through its life." The important thing here is to define the word "participate". For Pearson, the thinking doesn't stop at the bottom line: sure, they make money out of every textbook sale, not just the first one. But they get so much more than just the money. They begin to know.

They now know who decides to sell the book, and who chooses to keep it. They know who buys the book next, and when. They know which books are secondary market all-stars, and which are only good for primary sales. And because they are able to connect this data with all the other data they gather, they begin to know much more.

"Who knows?" is the first key question which Shoshanna Zuboff urges us to ask in the age of Surveillance Capitalism. Say goodbye to the anonymity of paper textbooks exchanged for paper banknotes. If this works out, Pearson (or any other publisher) participates in every learning investment down the line.

If you're interested in learning which is less trackable, my course "Privacy-based learning" is available (not as an NFT!) here.

2. Whose blockchain?

Andy Bird's quote above mentions "blockchain", which Bloomberg quickly mis-represents as "the blockchain". The "the" makes all the difference in the world.

There's no such thing as "the blockchain" any more; not since Bitcoin's original idea proved popular enough to be replicated. There are blockchains, plural. Some are better-known than others. Some are more successful, others - short-lived.

The idea of a blockchain is open participation and surveillance - this much is known and agreed upon. But the myth of 100% transparency and open governance of the blockchain is precisely that - a story which stopped making sense as blockchains (and their intended uses) proliferated.

Maybe Pearson wants to hitch a ride on a blockchain already in existence - adding a new veneer of legitimacy to an already-existing base of users. There are good candidates out there, if they were to consider that.

But knowing Pearson a little, I'd bet a Dogecoin or two on the alternative: Pearson building and launching a blockchain of their own, for the purposes of selling their textbooks, and reaping the rewards of a custom-made stream of market data. If it works, it's another marketable solution which other publishers would be more than happy to apply.

For the learners, it's a lose-lose situation. Either your learning record is present on one of the existing, widely available ledgers (that's how blockchains work: everyone with access can know what books you buy or sell, and when), or it's part of a walled-garden blockchain benefiting a select few companies (whose intentions you can't influence, either).

Both options sound terrible. If your data is on one of the big, widely available blockchain, this is a risky development. Imagine an abortion rights educator who now needs to think twice before buying a textbook from anywhere. Or a person living in an oppressive regime which just gained unfettered access to their research and learning history. Blockchain isn't an innocent, transparent tool, and "having nothing to hide" is a short-sighted defence when faced with tech you can't own, outpace, or control.

And if the blockchain in question is something Pearson (or any future publisher) is aiming to launch, then what really happens with the data? How soon before they lose interest in favour of the next catchy metaphor - what happens when they do? Whose job it is to sustain the blockchain, who's able to control its governance? Ultimately - if it restricts all these options - is "blockchain" still the right label to apply to it?

3. Energy concerns: sell a textbook, burn a tree

The situation in several blockchain models is now improving, but it's still nowhere near being sorted: every blockchain contract burns through way more energy than it should. The computing power needed just to carry out and record the transaction is excessive.

Even if a publisher were to pick up and use an off-the-shelf NFT solution, they would still be making every transaction more complex, less sustainable, and more power-hungry. The textbook wouldn't be improved. The customer experience would suffer, if anything. The sale - each sale - would take longer and be more likely to fail.

And let's not forget that Pearson (or any other publisher) would most likely not be able to find an off-the-shelf solution, and they'd have to spend additional resources just to make one happen...

There may have been merits in doing this anyway, if, in exchange, one gained some universally useful knowledge, or added security. In the case I'm discussing here - a private publisher selling its textbooks for profit, as NFTs - we can't guarantee either. The knowledge is likely to be closely guarded by the publishers, making this look even more like a planet-burning exercise in corporate greed. And as for the security...?

4. Security concerns: why NFTs are so hopeless at being secure

Every week, millions of dollars are siphoned off web3 transactions by hundreds of savvy (or not-so-savvy) individuals. People's digital wallets get hacked and emptied of cryptocurrencies and/or NFTs. Discord server passwords get discovered, and the channels - used to publicize fraudulent links. And even if no crime gets so blatantly committed - every week brings about another crypto/NFT project whose founders (after a long time spent making bombastic announcements and inflated claims) decide to change the rules, freeze the hype, and keep the money. (Read "Web 3 is Going Great" for more, much more, of this.)

It's not about the mathematics; not about the widely-touted infallibility of the digital ledger (another myth we don't have time for). No: the discipline you need is psychology. In an area awash with get-rich-quick money, ruled by startup-grade hype and unverifiable claims, powered by the "move fast and break things" ethos where security and testing is for losers, and populated by people whose tech skills (on average) far exceed their critical thinking or people skills - the weakest link is usually the human: that's how fake links get clicked, incorrect addresses go uncorrected, incredible claims - given credibility. And, since the great promise of web3 is decentralization and governance, law enforcement is a nightmare (which police force to report this to? How to investigate? Who to indict, and where?).

When a setting like this meets the long-term landscape of academia (let's say your journey from freshman to PhD takes you 10 years), one thing becomes certain: your NFT textbook is about to get hacked. Just having to type these words gave me a headache.

What if you want out?

5. Excluding the un-block-chained

Publishers are not known for flexibility when it comes to customer choice. Once a business model gets adopted, the audience is expected to follow along; textbook buyers are a prime example of a customer who rarely has any other legal options left to them.

The pattern is well known in many industries. Access to content is reserved to those who play by the rules. This used to mean getting the right content for the right price - then, with the DVDs, also the right region. Then, with the advent of digital sales, this also meant using the content according to the DRM regulations - usually on the right kind of program and operating system.

Each time, along the way, a fraction of your total possible audience gets left out. Those who can't afford the retail price. Those who (for whatever reason) won't invest in the hardware. Those who (for whatever reason) won't install the official apps or switch to the official systems. And now, those who (for any of the reasons listed above, or others still) won't be keen to sign up to the NFT ecosystem.

If you think that's a bad business decision, think again. Every step of the way is a publisher's chance to jettison the customer with low purchasing power, or inconveniently high moral compass, or both. Those who remain become the new core demographic - until the next inflection point. Yes, you're leaving behind some bright young minds, and whole states / countries sometimes. Yes, you're basically encouraging the growth of new areas where piracy is the only reasonable alternative. These used to be the expected costs of each such shift.

With NFTs, I think it's not as simple as that. Here's why.

6. A bad look, about to get worse

As Pearson (or any other publisher) considers moving into the NFT space, here's a brief and biased list of other NFT products it might find itself competing against:

Already, I'm seeing comments which express confidence that Pearson's entry into the NFT world will transform the unsavoury discourse around the whole technology, and become a sign that grown-ups are finally entering the space to make it less chaotic. To them I say: there are 5200 CryptoDickButt NFTs in existence, more are getting added every day, and I hate myself for having to fact-check this for you.

The NFT space isn't growing up. It's not about to become less toxic. Having an NFT label applied to a linguistics textbook and a CryptoTitVag isn't going to elevate the CryptoTitVag, or make it go away. There are dozens of ways for these kinds of adventures to end in a PR disaster, and (due to the space's financial volatility and lack of security, mentioned above) new ways keep coming. Pearson (or any publisher) would probably find this out the hard way, soon after declaring themselves "open for NFT business".

Conclusion: really don't mind if you sit this one out

Pearson (or any textbook publisher eyeing the NFT market in 2022) is, at best, five years behind the zeitgeist on this one. Seven, if they commit today and move at the usual pace.

If the move to NFTs happens, it would most likely result in a launch (sometime around 2024, maybe? ask yourself - what are your plans for the internet in 2024?) of a business model whose impact on sustainability, inclusiveness, privacy, and transparency leaves a lot to be desired. This business model would launch as part of an NFT market already in freefall, in the midst of an economic downturn and deepening energy crisis - and, in my opinion, it would soon be abandoned in favor of the next catchy metaphor, or perceived "paradigm shift". Those who believe in Pearson's (or other publishers') power to somehow make NFTs work alongside their goals for sustainable and equitable global education are, to put it mildly, more optimistic than I'll ever be.

Will Pearson still carry out its plan? Will other publishers follow? It's hard to say. To anyone bold enough to enter the NFT fray in 2022, I'd recommend first minting and trying to sell an NFT of this quote from the physicist Richard Feynman:

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

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