Real Growth from Virtual Economies – Part II: The Rise of the Virtual Economies

It seems that the idea that that growth in automation and algorithmization could lead to massive joblessness is becoming a popular topic lately. I highly recommend CGPGrey’s recent video on the topic (found here). While I generally agree that this represents a real problem for the near future of real economies, I have also been thinking lately that there may be some merit to one of the retorts that consistently comes up in the discussion; namely, the idea that in the future people will be doing jobs that haven’t yet been invented.

Although I am certainly not sure that we will find enough jobs to replace all of those ones that can and will be lost to automation in the next couple of decades, I have come to believe that it is possible that mass Virtualization could create more than enough new kinds of jobs to fill the void left by automation.

Firstly, I must divert this post to air a particular criticism of these “new jobs” that people often refer to, in response I must say there is nothing new under the sun. Even in the historical cases that people often use as examples of this new jobs effect, we can see that major industries of today started as rare jobs that existed during slow initial growth of exponential job trends. If we take computer programming for instance, we can see that people programming computers using punch cards as far back as 50 years ago. Even if we go back to the pre-transistor era, there were some number of people who would have worked in ‘programming’ the census machines as far back as the 19th century.

The same goes for the app programmers which are also often cited as an example of a new job, although they may have been few in number before the advent of the Apple store, there was some non-zero number of people programming games and apps for those old Nokia dumb-phones we all used to have. So we can see, that while new job industries might sometimes appear to be a completely novel occupation, the roots of these jobs always go back much further, but I digress.

In order to understand the economy of tomorrow, we must understand the scarcity that will drive the economy of tomorrow. 

The history of of the economy is often described as the advent of new kinds of industry which will rise and eventually supplant old ones, but this is not the only way to look at it. An alternative view is that innovative industries arise to disrupt old economies and it is that it is actually wholly new economies that must be created to move society forward. For instance, the economy of the old world was based mostly around meeting very basic needs, first feeding people, then clothing them, and maybe finding proper shelter. When the industrial revolution happened and suddenly it became very cheap to feed and clothe people the economies based around serving these needs evaporated.

So the industrializing societies floundered for some time but eventually we found new demands and formed a new economy around them. We built and sold relatively scarce luxury goods like cars and televisions, and we built an entire economy around he demand for these luxury goods.

New economies replace old economies. Often these are reflected by drastically different paradigms in how we think about the value of things. For instance, we no longer figure out how many cattle we could buy with out salary in order to assess its worth. Today we roughly calculate what kind of car or house our salary can buy, but this attachment to material goods already seems to be waning. In the future we might instead think about what kind of emotional experience our salary can buy, or what kind of virtual worlds we could build with it.

Peter Diamandis talks about a world where we can serve human physical needs with zero-marginal costs, but whereas in a few decades we might soon be able to meet the needs and even the wants of everyone on the planet, I believe we may be able to find a new scarcity from which to build an economy. Not all demand is equally inelastic, so whereas there might only be a fixed profit to be made on toothbrushes, some human demands have much more room to grow.

The modern economy is the emotional economy.

The real economy of today is about emotions. Manufacturers know well that products don’t sell because they are well designed or particularly useful products, they sell well because of the emotional reward that someone using their products feels. Shopping, entertainment, luxury goods, even the banking and financial sector, all of the huge industries that make up the vast bulk of the modern economy, are driven primarily by emotional rewards which they offer to their customers. Industries which can efficiently deliver intense emotional rewards are the growth industries of today and tomorrow.

The economy of serving human needs is already dead (in the modern world), automation is going to destroy the economy based around scarcity of material goods, and a new economy will grow around the delivery of emotional experiences… but what does all this mean? As we become increasingly adept at meeting our needs and wants in the physical world, I believe we will create a new economy based around delivering emotional experience in a Virtual world… and unlike the real world growth in virtual jobs could be virtually limitless.

Virtual jobs already exist.

The first example I can remember hearing about these kinds of jobs would be that of so called “gold farming” withing massively-multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft. Essentially, groups of players work to accrue points within the game world, which can then be exchanged on an open market for real currency. People who wish to play the game but do not have time to invest in the arduous task of leveling up and gaining points, can thus exchange real money for in-game goods and services. While this might seem like a relatively small number of jobs serving a niche community, it was big enough that several governments around the world have acted to put in place taxation rules around such activities.

Talk about the growth of such virtual economies was very heated a few years ago, but seems to have cooled of late. Some have gone so far as to suggest that Second Life is dead, but I think there is reason to be very bullish on virtual economies in the near future. In particular I think that there will soon be an explosion in highly capable virtual reality headsets for consumers (as discussed in my first post here). As VR booms, so will virtual economies like second life. Virtual economies will emerge from their current trough of disillusionment into what will eventually be a boom in online economies.

The future is going to look like the past. 

One interesting thing about the virtual world, is that we will be able to import many current jobs which are done in the real world into the virtual environment. Salesmen, teachers, doctors, programmers; there really are no limits on what kind of jobs could be virtualized in the near future. More importantly than this however, I think there will be major growth in the economy around virtual emotional experiences.

While the easiest example is VR-based pornography and prostitution (which I think stands to make a ton of money and drive the uptake of VR), the entire emotional spectrum of human experience is up for grabs in the virtual space. Perhaps you might be paid to be a warrior in someone else’s virtual dream, or maybe you will trade virtual fuel for space credits in a vast space simulation. People have an insatiable demand for creative and novel emotional experiences and in virtual reality, we will give them to each other.

Twenty years from now, I don’t think it crazy to believe that that a major percentage of economic activity might be taking place in Virtual reality, with many people will be meeting their real physical needs with money earned in meeting the virtual needs of other within the virtual realm. It won’t matter any more what kind of material goods your money can buy (that will be as outdated as counting your paycheck in cows), what will matter is what power your money will yield in virtual space.

While these kinds of activities probably seem frivolous to the serious suit-wearing business oriented people of today’s economy, I think it would be no more frivolous than a computer programmer living in New York would seem to that poor rural farmer from 1900.

In this post I have presented a relatively long winded argument for why I think virtual economies are going to become the most important driver of growth in the coming decades but there is an even simpler argument for why I think this will happen. Exchange, business, growth, economies, these are just words to describe what happens when people meet. Business and growth is going to happen wherever people go. If think the next decades will be marked by a mass migration of people into virtual worlds. In these virtual worlds we will meet eachother, exchange with eachother, and form economies with eachother because that is what we do.