Very online banking
Quarters to quatloos?
Two things have happened in recent days that have left me thinking about what it means for something to have value. The first is a discussion at work about Second Life, and the people who make their living there, selling items to others. The second is that I've been playing an MMORPG (Star Trek Online; I may put up a review in a couple days).

At first blush, it seems somewhat incredible that people would pay for online commodities. In the PC gaming community, certainly, we've become accustomed to things being free — free modifications, new maps and missions and what have you. These things, we believe, are intended to come as patches, not as purchases. As such there's a contingent of people fiercely opposed to microtransactions in digital space.

There are several caveats. In multiplayer games, for instance, it implies that people with money instead of skill can gain an unfair advantage over others by being able to pay real-world money for special goods. This occasionally sticks in one's craw, though to be honest I suspect the argument draws less from being impoverished and more from being righteously indignant at the intrusion of real-world artefacts in a virtual environment.

In single-player games, it raises a new point. Nobody will ever know that you have a special chair in The Sims, fancy units in Empire: Total War, or a horse in Oblivion. There isn't even the element of showing off to motivate a purchase — it's drawn solely from one's own amusement. Is this needless, frivolous expenditure? For that matter, is it problematic to spend — or make — large amounts of money in online multiplayer games?

Initially, I was inclined to think that it was. After all, your authentic replica 1968 Dodge Charger is a complete intangible. If you were to tell people at your workplace that you used it to get around in Second Life, nobody would care. Nobody would be impressed. Why would you spend money on it?

But then, why would you spend money to visit an art museum, whose effects are equally intangible — in some ways, even more so. Museums are funny, post-modern experiences; at least your virtual car does (or should) carry with it a distinct and immediate enjoyment for you. And, then, you can't — probably — make the car on your own. Or, if you could, it would still require a substantial investment of time. The knowledge necessary to create the code to make the virtual item — and the time spent in doing so on the part of its creator — means that it has value.

That it exists in virtual space is, I'm coming to suspect, increasingly irrelevant. Diamonds, also, exist fundamentally in virtual space — all they are in the real world is carbon, useful for industrial applications but not much help for the rest of us. All their value is derived from their status as a cultural token, which is not inherent but rather completely ascribed.

In this sense, let me advance a slightly more radical hypothesis: in the long run, it's probably good that people charge (and receive) money for digital creations. Why? Because it helps to set in place an infrastructure for a transition away from brick-and-mortar economies. Neil Stephenson's "Great Simoleon Caper" illustrates this well enough; eventually, our move away from the physical world will be more or less complete, at least when it comes to commerce. We had best be prepared.

Too, it means (one hopes) a focus on making these transactions safe, easy, and secure — no orc-based bank robberies like in Halting State. The more groundwork we can lay in ahead of time, the more likely it is the transition can be seamless and invisible.

Or can non-monetised anarchism endure forever on the tubes?

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