Hic Et Nunc — the story, facts, suppositions and ideas (June 2021)

If the NFT platform Hic Et Nunc was a series the hack that happened on the 28th of June, 2021 would be the cliffhanger that finishes season 1 and leaves everyone suspended in disbelief waiting for the next season to begin (quite literally in this case since all activities have paused waiting for a new contract to launch).

On the upside, this forced pause has provided space to breath and look at the larger picture. Without the constant Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) on all the amazing art that is constantly being minted the community is taking a step back to reflect, propose, and also criticize everything that happened during the latest incident.

In light of many of the discussions happening on Discord and Twitter I propose in this article to briefly explain the bigger dynamics that are in play as a way to guide fruitful and realistic dialogues on what can be done:

1. Who is Rafael Lima and why Hic Et Nunc was created.
2. Unaudited what? Who cares about smart contracts.
3. The tight rope between centralizing and decentralizing.
4. Hic Et Nunc AMA.

If you’re curious to know more about the creation of Hic Et Nunc there’s not a lot available on the internet. There’s a great timeline available in case you’re interested in the really early history (like it initially being an e-gaming dapp) but officially the platform was launched on March 1, 2021 by Rafael Lima. As he’s apparently not a very outspoken or public person (can’t confirm this as I never spoke to him or know him personally) the best place to find any information so far has been the interviews and live streams that he has been a part of. The first publicly available that I found was for VerticalCrypto Art that happened on the 20th of March (19 days after launch).

Another important interview where he goes more in depth on the ideas behind Hic Et Nunc is for the Brazilian conference Homeostasis Lab. Here, his background as a social scientist becomes clearer as they dive into more academical notions such as Benjamin’s idea of reproduction and the work of art (there’s an interesting link between the name Hic Et Nunc and Benjamin’s writings on what you experience in art).

From both these videos Rafael makes clear what his interest were at the moment when he was coding Hic Et Nunc:

  • Blockchain’s inherently characteristic of being uncensorable and transparent.
  • Apply these characteristics into governance experiments.
  • The importance of liminal spaces for experimentation in art.
  • Self-sustaining creative economies.
  • Web 3.0 platforms and user freedom. Create a space were the user is fully the owner of all his data.

For those around the crypto space for some time, most of these ideals are not new and were already present in Satoshi Nakamoto’s Bitcoin whitepaper. Giving real applications to these ideals though has always been a struggle as it inevitably has to confront the market economics. It can be said that the crypto space as a whole went from being anarchism, to anarcho-capitalism to what lately is just capitalism as big institutions entered the space in the last years. I won’t dwell in these topics as many have done so a lot better than what I’m capable of.

What really matters here, is that although there were already other successful NFT platforms none incorporated the full ethos of the crypto idealists. Even worse is that these platforms also missed the opportunity to bridge the real potential of blockchain technology to the artists.

In retrospect, the success of HEN is partly due to how well Rafael Lima understood these core crypto values and the potential it had to artists from all around the world. These interests were translated into the contracts and the platform in the following ways:

  • Uncensorable and transparent = Smart contracts once written are permanent (will get back to this in the next topic). Everyone can interact and there’s no way on the contract-level to ban or remove someone from minting. On a platform level there’s is no curation whatsoever. The audience sees everything that is being minted, be it the shittiest art or the most famous artist in the planet. They all have the same space and relevance on the website. With the rise of copyminters an exception has been made to ban and hide these users from the user interface although they still exist and will always exist on the contract level.
  • Governance experiments= the token hDAO was created and distributed during the first 45 days of the website for everyone that either sold or bought artworks. This token was planned to give voting power to whoever holds it on the future decisions of Hic Et Nunc through a DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization). Although it was planned and designed to help decentralize decisions till this date (June 2021) a fully functional DAO has not been implemented yet.
  • Liminal spaces= I firmly believe that choosing Tezos as the blockchain is greatly in part to this notion of liminality. Would you be more comfortable going to a gala party where you have to watch every rule of etiquette or going to a underground party where everything goes? It’s not a coincidence that many have compared HEN to Berghain. Moreover my cheap analogy, being a liminal space also opens the doors and lower the barriers to people who were either financially or culturally excluded in the larger NFT platforms.
  • Self-sustaining creative economies= Low platform fees + high royalties (10% as minimum) is a god send for every artist and a political statement in itself as it clearly sends a message to collectors on the value of the artists work.
  • web3 platforms and user freedom= Many complain about not having an integrated profile option but on the flipside HEN doesn’t collect or save any data on its users. I mean, literally ANYTHING! All the artwork files are saved o the publicly accessible IPFS and all the profile information is managed by 3rd sources or saved straight on the blockchain. Have you ever wondered how cool is it that Hic Et Nunc never shows that annoying pop-up message about accepting cookies?! Yep… That’s by design. Nothing of yours is being recorded or saved. You’re fully the owner of all your data.

Of course all of this is only possible because of blockchain and how smart contracts work. Going back to the VerticalCrypto Art video Rafael mentions that he coded the contracts for Hic Et Nunc during the pandemic. It’s important then to properly understand what a smart contract is and how it affects your life as a HEN artist or collector.

This is a more technical part so bear with me before returning to HEN. Smart contracts first appeared in the 2014 Ethereum whitepaper and till this day many still struggle, comprehensibly, to understand what is so smart about it — “You can run a very basic app on the blockchain and have to pay money for any interaction you do?! Why not use your own server and do it for cheaper and faster? Now that’s smart!”

When the focus on what a smart contract is relies purely on the technological achievement of being a script that lives on a decentralized blockchain people miss the key question of why it exists: TRUST.

Smart contracts opened the possibility for more complex interactions and by doing so removed what usually is the most unpredictable element in any transaction: human intermediation. Ever suffered because of your race, gender or sexuality when trying to get the best rates when opening a new account on your local bank branch? Smart contracts can solve that, it doesn’t care who you are as long as you have a wallet to interact with it.

With the most unpredictable element out of the question (human intermediation) whenever you interact with a smart contract you’re trusting that it will operate as expected. Blockchain increases the trust level in the smart contract because once it’s deployed it will live forever on the blockchain without being able to be changed by anyone (even its creator). It’s permanent. These properties of the smart contract gave life to what has become a motto for anyone entering this space: In code we trust!

Of course, most of the smart contracts right now are still written by humans (AI smart contracts are still very small and specific) and as such may contain errors or even malicious backdoors. Needless to say, many people have suffered great losses by trusting a smart contract that had problems within it.

The solution so far, if your serious about your smart contract, is getting an external audit. Basically you’re asking for more people to come, read the thousand lines of codes that you wrote and check if there is anything wrong with it before you deploy it. If you want a decent auditor you pay a lot of money and you either get a report on all the problems that your contract has or you get a certificate saying that your contract is trustworthy.

If you don’t have enough money laying around you can ask the experts in your community to check your code on the testnet hoping that some wizard freely helps you comb through everything. In this case, it’s good ethics to announce to the community that your contract is unaudited or that it is still being experimented upon.

Footnote that greets you every time you click on the menu at hicetnunc.xyz.

Returning to Hic Et Nunc, whenever you access the website and click on the menu button a banner appears on the bottom of the site announcing that “This is an experimental dApp”. What does that mean? That means that you’re interacting with an unaudited contract. Or in HEN’s case, contracts in plural as Rafael divided the whole functionality of Hic Et Nunc in 7 smart contracts.

Where does the trust in Rafael Lima’s code come from? I suppose that in HEN’s case it organically grew from artists that started using the platform and advocating for it. Mario Klingemann being the spark that brought more high profile artists that in turn inspired trust in many smaller artists. Collectors soon followed this migration to HEN also without questioning how experimental the smart contract codes really were.

Always remember that the website is merely an interface for the smart contracts. Differently from other NFT platforms HEN doesn’t keep any of your information on a private database and as such you always have to sync your Tezos wallet so that it can pull all the information from the blockchain. Even if the website ceases to exist Hic Et Nunc will live as long as Tezos blockchain is running.

As previously mentioned Rafael began his coding experiments during the pandemic. Thanks to the research on the early days of Hic Et Nunc made by CRCDNG there are some important aspects that should be taken into account to understand the evolution of HEN smart contracts.

On the Hic Et Nunc Youtube channel you can find the early videos where Rafael is experimenting throughout 2020 with possible ideas for the Hic Et Nunc contracts. The are many ideas going around: an Oracle named Ungrund, bridging Tezos and Chainlink, multi-atomic swap, etc.). The most important video from this early period is where he tests minting an NFT. This video appears in November exactly a week after the twitter account for Hic Et Nunc announces that it will be an NFT platform. Around this same time Tezos is upgraded and the price to mint an NFT falls considerably.

On the 29th of January the github depository for HEN is created and two weeks later the OBJKT Swap manifesto is published. This is the manifesto that explains the main mechanics of Hic Et Nunc. The social scientist in Rafael shines through in the opening statement in what seems to be references to studies of Deleuze and Guattari:

Speculating futures in the form of binary data, as one of it’s synthesis. An eternal smart contract infrastructure. Being occupied by different purposes. Exchanging crystals, pieces of memory, in it’s continuous existence, coming to compose a diverse landscape.

In the medium article he announces the parameters that are set in stone in the smart contracts:

  • User’s are able to mint, swap, transfer and giveaway NFTs
  • OBJKTs will contain CIDs that link to IPFS (this is how a string of text on the blockchain can show the media in the UI).
  • Limit of 10000 units of OBJKTs per mint.
  • 2.5% fee
  • hDAO tokens distribution

Equally important and often overlooked is that a roadmap is also published at the end of the article. Although a roadmap is not immutable, it’s very important to understand the initial timeframe on how Hic Et Nunc was planned to evolve. OBJKTs communities? OBJKTs ontologies? Randomness Oracle and Cryptographed OBJKTS? That all sounds so cool and mysterious!

So far the road has hold up rather well apart from having to create a second versions of the smart contract (and soon a third one!). The first one deployed on the 29th of January, 2021 and had 151 OBJKTs minted that became incompatible once a new contract was deployed on the end of February. Each new contract version creates a new address that has to be changed in all the frontend UI (Hic Et Nunc website) so that it may interact with the correct smart contracts. Which bring up the next point —control.

The way Hic Et Nunc was setup created two control points. Or two control switches, or two nuke buttons. Whatever you prefer. These are: Control of the funds and control of the entry points to the smart contracts.

How I learned to stop worrying about contracts and love the hack

First off, control of the funds. To deploy a contract you have to use a regular tezos account. Once its deployed there’s no way to change or upgrade the code so its important to get it right the first time. The contracts were launched using the address tz1UBZUkXpKGhYsP5KtzDNqLLchwF4uHrGjw and this same address is also coded into the smart contracts to get the 2,5% fee. Inevitably, Rafael, who holds the private key to this wallet has a lot of power since it controls all the 40k tezos from Hic Et Nunc.

The other important point of control is the entry point to interact with the smart contract. Yes, if you’re savvy enough you can use Better Call Dev or develop your own scripts to interact with it. Nevertheless, most of the people will prefer to have an easy UI that they know they can trust. The website hicetnunc.xyz is open source and you can collaborate with your own code and even fork it, but someone still has to accept any changes and push all the changes to the production website (the one you access on the main URL). Right now only Rafael has this power.

Why is this a control point? Because someone malicious with admin privileges on Github can push commits that makes the UI interact with a fake smart contract that does all sorts of things (divert the fees to another address, steal or destroy the NFTs, etc.).

So far, Rafael has shown to be trustworthy but being the only person with access to these control points has been problematic when it comes to fast response time to crisis. Turning this discussion even more important is the sudden explosion in popularity of Hic Et Nunc and the pressure to constantly update the platform. Even with developers volunteering and working together, only having one person that can commit changes to the UI is a recipe for a fast burnout. Lastly, Rafael being the sole controller of the funds also means that in between all the technical issues needing attention time has to be dedicated to the financial aspects.

It quickly became obvious that a dedicated team is needed to guarantee a sustainable future for HEN. How to proceed though isn’t so clear. Is the solution for more people to have access to these control points? How to choose these people? Is Rafael willing to share his control? Smart contracts were created to remove the human unpredictability factor in transactions, wont more people with the nuke switch also increase the chances for something to go wrong?

The most common misconception when it comes to decentralization is to think in absolute terms. Decentralization is not a flip switch that you can simply turn on and suddenly everyone has equal power to affect the outcome. Instead, it helps to think of it as a spectrum where any given project can change during different times during its existence.

Take Bitcoin for example, did it have a decentralized creation? After it was launched and miners could take part in affecting the decisions of the project how decentralized was it when mining on cheaper CPUs and GPUs became impossible because of ASICs machines and mining farms? Lately this discussion on Bitcoin decentralization has taken an even wider approach as the hashrate of miners of any given country fluctuate and new dynamics are created with each local government imposition.

It’s imperative, therefore, that decentralization is thought as where the project is in any given point during its history (Y axis being how decentralized it is and the X axis the time of existence since first launched). Investigate and map out the history of any blockchain or decentralized project and the graph will make you dizzier than staring for hours at one of Fiedler’s creations.

In my opinion, a decentralized project suffers even more when it’s beginning as it lacks people to form a big enough quorum that acts in good faith. What do I mean by this? A tech company has all the necessary information and legal backing to sue and go after any employees that act in bad faith with the platform. A larger number of people are given access to push commits to the production website because there’s this extra security level that coerces its employees with a looming process in case they do something wrong or illegal. On many crypto projects though the collaborators share only there online aliases or only their names. There’s very little to loose from the collaborator’s point of view if he acts maliciously. The result is that the founding member (or founding team) needs to cautiously create mechanisms where collaboration is welcome while also protecting from any attacks from these same collaborators.

This can change though, once there’s enough people in the community the responsibility in case something goes wrong can be shifted from the founders to some sort of governance where people who want the best for the project can take place voting. A sort of board of directors that can assume the most important decisions and let the CEO do his thing.

Lastly, before going back to Hic Et Nunc, there’s an elemental psychological factor in decentralized collaborations and governance (which will be talked more in depth in part 5). As I mentioned previously, in a truly decentralized project everyone has their say and through collaboration or voting can affect the future of the project. The outcome is that people consider themselves owners of the project. The easiest comparison is owning shares of a company and having to vote on a couple board decisions each quarter. I would argue though that this comparison still is very limited because a share holder doesn’t really collaborate with the company and also don’t vote on every single action that is taken. Many people on a fully decentralized project, on the other hand, expect having their collaboration immediately rolled out or that they can minutely control what is being done.

Coming back to Hic Et Nunc, now more aware on the intricacies of this topic, where is HEN on the spectrum of decentralization? It’s at 42. Just kidding, there’s no magic number but a list on what is centralized and decentralized can be done.

What’s centralized at Hic Et Nunc:

  • Funds are controlled by Rafael Lima. Same wallet also launched the smart contracts.
  • Hicetnunc’s Github is controlled by Rafael, any pull requests or push commits needs to be approved by him. In other words, any changes to the website.

What’s decentralized at Hic Et Nunc:

  • The Github is publicly available and anyone can fork it and create their own UI. Anyone can also submit pull requests for new features or fixes through Github (although it will have to approved by Rafael).
  • The smart contracts are also available on Github making it easier to see how it works, submit pull requests or even fork it. Due to blockchain nature it would be available anyways on the blockchain, but having it properly marked and easier to submit improvements on Github is a lot faster.
  • Anyone can interact with the smart contracts and create amazing tools or even full platforms that are built on top of this framework (objkt.bid, hicdex.com, hictory, NFT Biker tools, etc.)

What’s in(-between) the 50 shades of decentralization:

  • Fixed collaborators. There is a small group of known artists, developers and coders that have been working with Hic Et Nunc and doing many upgrades on the platform. All of their work though has to be approved and pushed to the main site by Rafael. They also have been paid (very) small amounts from the Hic Et Nunc wallet.
  • Communications. There are a few collaborators working on the Twitter, Discord, Instagram but its unclear how many as it seems understaffed regarding the lack of proper communications in critical moments.
  • Hicathon. Although the idea was developed in a completely decentralized manner (thanks to the amazing organization by Micol on Vertical Crypto Art and many others) and dozens of people from all around the world came together few results from the work groups were taken further into the production website by Rafael. In all fairness, some work groups objectives didn’t directly involve changes to the website and many work groups did a great job in showing realistic possible futures for the platform.
  • hDAO supposedly will bring governance to make HEN a Decentralized Autonomous Organization but it’s still in its baby steps using Homebase as an interface. Hope that on my next write-up it’s successfully up and running.

With this list in hands and with the benefit of doing this analysis retrospectively tensions were bound to occur between the fact that final changes are centralized (as of the date of this article) in Rafael and all the decentralized work that was being done by collaborators that had to keep waiting for an approval to have their work pushed into production.

Digging into the pull requests at Github it’s common to see the same answers being repeated through the comments. These are just a few from André Venâncio who was responsible to go through the Pull Requests:

It’s understandable Rafael controlling the final pushes to the production site but when does it become impossible to follow all that is happening and delegation of responsibility is needed?

With the risk that I will not be able to mention everything and everyone I’ve made a quick list of all the top contributors and some of their many works at HEN (please DM me if I missed any important contributions so I can add them here):

DjangobitsConstantly updating all the filters: copymints, blocked addresses, etc.
André Venâncio Brought The Fen to Hic Et Nunc and coded the current galleries because of this. Collaborated on improving the interactive and 3d OBJKTS.
Daniel MasseyImplemented interactive HTML NFTs, a lot of work to get properly working thumbnails and many bug fixes.
VeqtorFeatures to speed up the website like cache, different IPFS server for video and lot of work fixing the API. Worked on bringing hDAO to homebase. Helped also on the copyminting ban system.
Violeta LópezMany UI changes like the current masonry grid, FAQ feature in the menu and also many fixes for bugs in the UI. Also very active on moderating the Discord.
MarchingsqureCreator of Hicdex and the API that HEN currently uses for indexing/caching. Also created the banning system used against copyminters.
Tarwin Stroh-SpijerWorking on a thumbnail system for all the art minted on HEN.
UFFD Discord moderation and copyminter filter list.
Rodrigo Koshino Couldn’t properly verify but has been involved directly with many expositions, community outreach programs and the Tibum Residency.
Amelie Maia and Taís Koshino Couldn’t find any direct links to HEN but since the start they have working actively in diversity inclusiveness and organizing the OBJKT4OBJKT events through Diverse NFT.

The collaborators above worked hard together with Rafael in making Hic Et Nunc one of the best places for NFT. Countless hours have been spent by everyone making sure HEN is at the best form it can be. Which brings us to the next point of tension. Finances. People who collaborate live in different parts of the world and have different financial needs. I’m not sure exactly how it’s decided how much each one gets for their contributions but the payments made up until now for this contributors have been really low.

From reading the transactions of the HEN Wallet and Rafael’s wallet it appears (I would like to emphasize that there’s a big chance I’m wrong as I’m only going by the transactions on the wallet without any background on what these really were meant for) these fixed collaborators receive payment for their services that mostly ranges between 25 to 50 tezos each week. As a contrast to these rates the donators of Hicathon valued the work of the people who collaborated in the work groups a lot higher with rewards that started at 0.5 xtz and surprisingly over 90 collaborators received over 70 xtz for what has been achieved during the Hicathon weekend. Organizers and people who had an important role working hard to make it happen received between 200 to 500 xtz.

To be clear, I’m not advocating for lower rewards for everyone who participated in the Hicathon. I’m advocating that Hicathon showed how much the community values everyone that works in advancing Hic Et Nunc. If given the option, many would even accept a higher fee if it meant that the collaborators are getting proper compensation for their hard work. The point here in any case, is that how much a person gets paid for their collaboration is currently a centralized decision and that it’s paying a lot less than when the community had an input on how much everyone should get.

When you add a centralized point of control on what gets added to the main site that gets ineffective due the huge volume of demands + a centralized finance system that undervalues the contributors work you not only get a big turnover rate of collaborators that leave the project but also put pressure on those that stayed and that keep getting more and more discontent. Add to this pressure a community that is actively working towards imagining a better platform through Hicathon and expecting faster changes and you have the perfect scenario for someone to light the fire and watch it explode.

This is the tight rope that Rafael Lima has been balancing on.

Film researcher and independent filmmaker. http://matheussiqueira.com