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The art world goes blockchain

Mona Lisa

Good morning! This Monday, crypto art is becoming big business, Uber has to figure out what to do now that the U.K.'s Supreme Court said drivers are workers, and Frances McDormand worked for Amazon.

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The Big Story

Nifty NFTs

On Wednesday, Christie's is auctioning off an artwork called "Everydays: The First 5000 Days," by longtime digital artist Beeple. Art auctions aren't normally tech news, but this one's a little different: As well as being all-digital, the artwork is a non-fungible token.

  • Quick catch-up: NFTs are a way of representing a one-of-a-kind digital asset through a blockchain. Just like every Bitcoin only exists once, even though it's purely digital, NFTs do the same for artwork, trading cards and more. The key idea is that it brings scarcity to digital assets, which has never really been possible before.
  • For Wednesday's auction, Christie's will also accept Ether as a form of payment for the first time. No one has any idea how this is all going to go. "We're replacing our typical 'estimate on request' with 'estimate unknown,'" Christie's specialist Noah Davis said. "We're breaking such new ground with this piece, your guess is as good as ours."

Expect the work to go for a huge price. While crypto art has been around for a few years, the NFT market is really exploding right now.

  • NFT sales have exceeded $100 million in the last month, CryptoSlam found, with about two-thirds of that coming through the NBA Top Shot app.
  • NBA Top Shot is a perfect intro to NFTs, actually: It has built a fascinating business out of digital trading cards, letting people own digital merch that is sometimes fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  • Rarible, Foundation, OpenSea and Mintable are just a few of the new places you can buy and sell NFTs. A Nyan Cat GIF (you remember the one) sold on Foundation last Friday for 300 ETH, which translated to $574,000 at the time of sale.

The NFT explosion is tied up in the rise of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which is tied up in a general frenzy of investment, and so who knows what will eventually crash when the rest of it does.

  • But there's something here. You probably don't want to spend half a mil on a Pop Tart cat, but the idea that digital goods can be authenticated and verified — that you might someday buy a GIF the same way you buy a painting or a Rolex — is transformational.

Gig Economy

Now hiring: drivers

On Friday, the U.K.'s Supreme Court ruled that a group of 25 drivers should be classified as workers, not contractors, which meant they're entitled to a minimum wage, holiday pay and other perks that employees get and Uber drivers typically don't.

  • It'll take a while for what this ruling means to shake out, since it technically only applies to the 25 drivers in question and to some policies Uber has already changed. But everyone seems to think this is key precedent, not a one-off decision.
  • It's also yet another signal that the tides might be shifting again. Uber helped get Proposition 22 passed in California last year, and has since begun trying to export the bill's big ideas around the world. But in the EU and even in the Biden administration, early signals have been clear that the fight is not over.
  • Another big thing in the ruling: The court found that Uber drivers should get paid whenever they're "ready and willing" to accept rides, not just when someone's in the car.

Watch this week to see how the industry reacts. Uber's been trying to downplay the seriousness of the ruling, but it's going to have to move fast to figure out what to do next. And other companies, from DoorDash to Lyft to Just Eat Takeaway, are going to have to ratchet up the seriousness of their what-if-the-worst-happens contingency plans, because the worst looks a little more plausible every day. Maybe that's why Instacart is looking into swapping grocery-store pickers for "robotic warehouses."

Campaigns

Tech spends big for Biden

The Biden campaign got at least $15.1 million from employees at five Big Tech companies — Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple and Facebook — according to The Wall Street Journal.

  • Those companies were actually the five largest donors to the campaign by employee contributions. Oracle, Netflix, and Lowercase Capital were also near the top of the list. Tech is frequently high on donor lists, but has never dominated quite this much.
  • On the Trump side, for comparison, the five biggest donor employers were American Airlines, Boeing, Bank of America, Lockheed Martin and Wells Fargo.

This is a little bit "Big Tech leans Democratic" and a little bit "Big Tech is happy to throw money at anyone in power." Since these are employee contributions — a sum of generally smaller amounts of money — there's less corporate finagling represented here.

But remember what Microsoft's Brad Smith said last month about tech's Government Affairs work: "You spend your evenings going to these dinners, and the reason you go is because the PAC writes a check. But out of that ongoing effort, a relationship evolves and emerges and solidifies." Money opens doors, and Big Tech needs all the open doors it can find right now, whether it's the company or the staff writing the checks.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

Amazon

In 2018, Amazon established a $15/hr start wage for all their U.S. employees, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. They've seen the positive impact on their employees and their families. That's why they're calling on Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

People Are Talking

On Protocol: Being customer-centric is crucial, Intuit's Sasan Goodarzi said, but only if you can also move fast:

  • "If you have a desktop CD and the whole world is shifting to the cloud, but you're in love with having desktop CDs, then you're going to miss the shift. You're going to go out of business."

Tim Berners-Lee said the Australian media code is untenable for one specific reason:

  • "Specifically, I am concerned that that code risks breaching a fundamental principle of the web by requiring payment for linking between certain content online."

Clubhouse audio was streamed outside the app, but Robert Potter said it wasn't really a hack:

  • "A user set up a way to remotely share his login with the rest of the world. The real problem was that folks thought these conversations were ever private."

Restaurants are trying to build their own online-ordering systems to get away from DoorDash and Uber Eats, said Long John Silver's CMO Stephanie Mattingly:

  • "We didn't want to continue to deal with these companies. They are the necessary evil for us right now."

After the company initially tried to deny it had a bias problem, Mailchimp CEO Ben Chestnut backtracked:

  • "I'm hearing loud and clear that we have work to do, including needing greater transparency around pay equity and an intentional focus on inclusion. I want to address these issues head-on, and I know we'll be stronger for it."

Coming This Week

It's the last big week of earnings, thank goodness. Zoom, DoorDash, Airbnb, Salesforce, VMware, Square, Nvidia and HPE all report this week.

NASA's holding a briefing at 11 a.m. PT today, promising we'll be able to "see Mars like never before!" Given how impressive the early footage has been, you probably want to tune in.

In Other News

  • Zuckerberg intervened in Facebook's Alex Jones ban, BuzzFeed reported, allowing supporters to keep sharing praise for Jones. BuzzFeed also reported on internal concerns that Joel Kaplan's policy team regularly interferes with content moderation decisions.
  • Google fired Margaret Mitchell, co-lead of its Ethical AI team. Google says it was due to violations of its code of conduct and security policies. The news came as Google finished its investigation into the Timnit Gebru firing, which reportedly led to a change in policies around diversity and employee retention.
  • Antitrust investigations are coming, the U.K.'s competition chief said. Probes will target Google and Amazon, among others, and may focus on areas that the European Commission has yet to investigate. (Also: One senior British minister applauded Australia and suggested Facebook should pay for news in the U.K.)
  • Apple's in talks to buy lidar tech, Bloomberg reported, with the goal of finding tech that will be cutting-edge in four years. Meanwhile, Apple regained its position as the world's biggest smartphone seller for the first time since 2016, selling almost 80 million phones in Q4 2020.
  • Toast might quadruple its valuation. The restaurant software provider is reportedly planning an IPO at a $20 billion valuation, up from the $4.9 billion it raised at last year.
  • China might ban exports of rare-earth refining tech to countries it deems a security threat, Bloomberg reported. It's reportedly not planning on banning actual shipments of the materials to the U.S., for now.

One More Thing

Method acting in the warehouse

Amazon closely guards information about how its warehouses work. Unless, apparently, you're Frances McDormand, who managed to convince the company to let her and a crew into one of its facilities to shoot parts of the movie "Nomadland." (The movie is apparently great, by the way.) If you ever got a crappily-wrapped package, there's a non-zero chance that McDormand herself boxed it up for you. Quite the Prime benefit, that one.

A MESSAGE FROM AMAZON

Amazon

In 2018, Amazon established a $15/hr start wage for all their U.S. employees, which is more than double the federal minimum wage of $7.25/hr. They've seen the positive impact on their employees and their families. That's why they're calling on Congress to pass the Raise the Wage Act.

Today's Source Code was written by David Pierce, with help from Anna Kramer and Shakeel Hashim. Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to david@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day; see you tomorrow.

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