Can Economic Methadone Buy Time to Save the Economy?


February 16, 2006


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This thing we call, with exquisite euphemism, “the economy”, has gotten itself into a real fix, and it goes much deeper than the interest rates and productivity numbers that the Greenspans obsess over. The machinery solved long ago the problem it was supposed to meet, which is human scarcity. When people lack today, it’s because of a rotten system of distribution, not because there’s not enough to go around.

The problem today is desire for the stuff produced, not the capacity to produce it. We are, as John McKnight of Northwestern University has observed, a society “in need of need.” The machinery can’t stop. For the individual corporation as for the system as a whole, there is — and can be — no concept of “enough”. There always must be more, and then more compounded onto that. Most of the depredations of the commons – the air and water, knowledge, the shared spaces we inhabit, the whole list – result from this unrelenting, built-in need of the system to keep itself going at an ever-accelerating pace.

There are many efforts to change the coding of the corporate economy, and to erect boundaries against its grabby nature. Self-control is the central economic challenge of the age. One question is whether we can buy enough time; and help could come from a new source – virtual reality. Might it be possible to channel some of the destructive tendencies of the economy , on the “consumption” side at least, into the virtual sphere where they would do less harm?

That question came to mind when a friend from South Korean told me about a web site that is wildly popular in that country. It’s called Cyworld, and it enables people to create a kind of parallel existence online. When they sign up they get a homepage, or mini-hompy, which includes an empty room. They proceed to outfit the room, using a special Cyworld currency called “acorns”, that they buy at bookstores and the like. They can buy furniture, music pets and other accoutrements to outfit – and define – their on-line personhood, or mini-me.

Then they form relationships with other ersatz existences, through gifts and visits, and things take off from there. One in four people in South Korea have joined, including just about everyone in their twenties, according to media reports. Some companies actually pay Christmas bonuses in acorns, and gift certificate cards were, one newspaper reported, an “instant hit.”

Cyworld is the kind of contrivance that makes techno-futurists perky. In the bright new online world, human creativity will be unleashed, peace will reign, and so forth. Growth enthusiasts gloat. Here is a whole new realm – a new dimension – of consumerist potential, in which limits truly do not exist. The company that runs Cyworld makes over $260,000 a day, with no material throughput to speak of, besides electricity and the computers themselves. And those flat-earth environmentalists said there were limits to growth. Didn’t we tell you technology would come to the rescue?

Well, I question that, for reasons I will mention in a minute. Plus the whole idea is a little creepy. A world without human interactions in all their messy actuality, might appeal to economists and technoids of a certain type. I prefer the messiness, awkwardness and sweat. The money makes it even creepier. It’s bad enough to live in a world inhabited by a Rupert Murdoch or a Disney Inc. To inhabit a world that could be owned entirely by them is…well, akin to one in which our genes could be owned by Monsanto.

Still there is something instructive about a Cyworld, and maybe even something useful for a while. Economists use a language of Spartan utility – “supply”, “demand”, “productivity” — to describe what is essentially a circus. The real content of the economy increasingly is not utility in any sane sense of that word, but rather social posturing, envy, emulation, addiction and the rest. As Milton Friedman once opined, the word “need”, when used in economics “is always fallacious.” He was right, for his version of economics at least. It’s just a game.

Which means that the objects themselves don’t really matter much. It’s the feeling of having them that counts — having what others have, or don’t have, or just appeasing the incessant yearnings that a product culture bestirs. In this sense a Cyworld really does strip the game down to its raw essentials in an illuminating way. It sheds the stuff and shows the symbols for what they are. No trees are cut, no water poisoned, no gunk is emitted into the skies – at least much less than if people buy a real car rather than an online version.

Yes, it’s a kind of methadone for consumerism. The proclivities continue; and so are bound to find expression in some unconstructive form. (Viz. the dry drunk.) The more people get drawn into the ersatz world of bytes, moreover, the more indifferent they might become to the actual world around them. A reporter for the Age, an Australian newspaper, observed that Cyworld thrives in Korea in part because of a “craving for escapism” from a world of “identical and economical, but unlovely, blocks of flats that rise by the hectare in commuter suburbs.”

The globe is warming? Life generally sucks? Come join our happy world on line. Maybe that will be the attitude, maybe not. I haven’t been on Cyworld (it’s in Korean) and my friends haven’t either, so I can’t say. It’s probably too soon to know anyway. People can share in cyberworlds too. As in life, it depends in part on who designs the game.

There’s a U.S. version of Cyworld, called Second Life. It has just 142,000 “residents,” compared to Cyworld’s 13 million. But these are serious consumers, as we Americans tend to be. Currently they spent as much per day as the Koreans who outnumber them one hundred to one. Second Life has become a first livelihood for a growing cadre of entrepreneurs, who sell everything from avatars to – I’m not kidding – virtual real estate.

People actually buy house plots, and then pay builders and decorators. Or else they rent. The biggest landlord is one Anshe Chung, who reportedly makes $150,000 a year dealing land that exists only in the buyers’ minds.

But hey, isn’t that where much of the stuff we buy actually exists already? Where does the Nike cache exist – in the shoe or in our minds? Where do third and fourth and fifth homes that the wealthy owners rarely use exist, most of the time? When you get right down to it, what is a dollar but a kind of projection screen for trust that exists in us, not in the money. (If you question that, I suggest you take a dollar to the U.S. Treasury or Federal Reserve and try to exchange it for that which supposedly stands behind it, and see what you get.)

Better the developers on Second Life are siccing their bulldozers on ersatz islands than on real ones. There’s something to be said for methadone, given the alternatives.