Saturday, October 28, 2006

Musing on cyber-money

Earlier today, I had to hit the bank to deposit Jenn's check, and was listening to Midnight Oil's Blue Sky Mining album. I'm not sure what about those things inspired the following, but something did...

For many people, the cyber-economy is a fiction, a place where people can manipulate numbers without real world consequences and the numbers themselves have little or no validity. Trillions of dollars flow through cyberspace daily, multiplying with little link to the "real world."

To some degree, I agree with that attitude. But this morning, it also occurred to me that the cybereconomy, if properly managed, has far greater potential to meet humanity's needs than does the traditional economy.

The cybereconomy is not, in fact, rooted in nothing; its roots tap the various intangibles we as a society should put a much greater value on -- creativity, independence, personal uniqueness, entrepreneurship, community and intelligence. These things are not just "business" attributes, they're things most people share, and the cybereconomy actually acknowledges this fact. Combined, these traits provide the basis for an economic system that can truly be global, even go beyond this planet when we do, and include everyone capable of coming up with a new idea. The cybereconomy even has a place (although today's "leaders" won't like this concept) for hackers and counterfeiters, because they create value where none previously existed ... just like the speculators of the old economy.

The traditional economy, by contrast, gives those concepts lip-service, but doesn't really abide by them. Because it's rooted in material resources -- gold, silver, furs, crops, whatever -- it is inherently subject to control by the relatively few people who have those things. Regardless of what avenue of economy a person wants to be active in, there are invariably restrictions of some kind and inconveniences placed on the flow of goods and ideas to benefit a few who claim to "own" them.

As a zero-sum system, the old economy favors certain kinds of interactions -- namely, exploitative ones -- among people and between humans and nature, often to the detriment of both. The only difference is that the "loser" gets harmed immediately, while the "winner" gets harmed in the long-term. It is, by its very nature, a form of both autocratic and scarcity thinking, yet its practitioners deny that fact, to the detriment of everyone.

One example of the fundamental difference between the two economies is art. In the old system, access to art is severely limited, by wealthy patrons (including governments) owning it outright or limiting its circulation to museums that only a relatively few people have access to, for fiscal or geographic reasons. Although many people express their creativity artistically, a small handful tend to define what is economically valuable, and thereby greatly limit the potential of art as a means of livelihood.

By "cyberizing" art, however, the original, physical work still exists, but a vastly larger number of people have access to it and the opportunity to see and be inspired by it. The focus of what's valuable shifts from the actual object to the idea of art and the mindset behind the act of creation.

The same thing could really be said about many things in cyberspace, especially simulated communities. There, people have the choice to literally change the world into something they'd want to live in and an opportunity to experiment with ideas or behavior that very rarely exists in the "real" world. While some people use that opportunity to escape from physical reality, others use it to discover who they are and what they believe. While some of the concepts expressed are hostile, I think the fact they can be expressed and shared makes hostile acts less likely in the long run.

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