The criteria for an item to be considered an artifact are three. The item must be (1) intentionally produced, (2) produced for a purpose, and (3) a product of the modification of materials. Loosely, we can probably agree that most of the time this goes something like stuff beings make out of other stuff from surroundings. This is a slippery philosophical slope, but we'll roll with it for now.
A hat is an artifact because a human intentionally made it out of cloth for the purpose of covering one's head. An automobile is an artifact made of other artifacts. Genetically engineered foods and domesticated pets could be considered artifacts, as human intervention is solely responsible for their existence as they are known today. But what of digital artifacts? Computers are surely artifacts, so it'd follow that anything within them would be, too, as none of it would exist without intent, purpose, and material modification-- all the way from the hardware itself to the software applications within. I suppose artificial-intelligence-generated items or code might blur this line a bit, but we'll save that for later. This makes for a new class of not-at-all or at least differently-tangible items than humans have seen prior to the 20th century.
Bitcoin Ordinals are data inscriptions written directly onto the smallest possible unit of Bitcoin currency, the Satoshi. 1 BTC = 100,000,000 Satoshis.
By definition a Satoshi is a non-fungible token, but most other NFTs we talk about are new tokens spun-up independently of the system currency itself. On the Solana or Ethereum networks, NFTs are fresh tokens full of new data and dependencies and fully separate from the base currency of the blockchain. The data contained within these new tokens is also not typically stored on the blockchain itself, but rather stored on outside servers owned by some company or another. Their nature makes them typically changeable by the original creator, and we all know how indecisive and erratic humans can be. Having this power in the hands of not the owner but the creator of the token (art, currency, books, etc) seems a bit of an ironic twist in a world so concerned with self-custody & immutability.
While 'digital artifact' feels a bit redundant by the above explanation, I can't quite think of a better manner of expressing what these pieces are. When we use this word, we're specifically referring to digital assets (collectibles mostly) on the Bitcoin network. We use this new phrase because the word 'NFT' has been abused and misunderstood, so it's a way of differentiating the world of mutable collectibles on numerous blockchains from those thought to be far more permanent on the Bitcoin network. It is presumed that a medium-sized jog into the future will reveal the staying power of these artifacts, while NFTs may largely be abandoned, blank tokens with a record of their path of ownership remaining at best. This is not to say that everyone means harm who makes NFTs-- I'd say quite the opposite. But if we can change the content and existence of an item, even if simply by neglecting it, then it follows that we likely at some point will.
Calling an item an 'artifact' makes it sound old, or at least capable of becoming old. When artifacts stick around long enough to outlast their common surroundings, they become relics. I think what we're ultimately trying to distinguish when we separate 'NFTs' from 'digital artifacts' is the asset's perceived ability to age, irrespective of maintenance or upkeep. When an asset is stored on the Bitcoin network instead of another more centralized server or series of servers, that asset is stored in duplicate on 10k to 50k+ separate devices around the world.
The Bitcoin network incentivizes power-users to run a node to store a copy of the blockchain's contents by allowing that user to interact directly with the network, avoiding all third-party reliance and putting the fate & goals of the network in the aggregate hands of all node-operators. If we're using the term 'digital artifact' to indicate Bitcoin Ordinals' potential staying power in the digital assets realm, I'd have to agree with its use as being separate from other 'NFTs', despite the argument feeling a little overdone. There is a difference, it does matter, and it's important to make a distinction.
All digital assets are technically artifacts, I suppose, but until we find a better way to refer to the myriad elements that strengthen the staying power and reliability of a subset of digital assets-- this is the terminology that's been accepted. Humans are known for creating new language to fit new ideas without even knowing we're doing it, so lets see how we decide to categorize this new class of item. It may be debated for hundreds of years or forever, but as long as we maintain consensus about the definition of 'digital artifact', all is well and forward we move.
See you in the future.
Thanks to Bankless DAO for the ongoing support.
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