Monday, September 17, 2007

Virtual Commodities and the Question of Fantasy

Several of this week’s readings discuss the relationship of economics with imagined communities and “global flow.” One trend, summed up nicely by Appadurai, holds that “sustained cultural transactions across large parts of the globe…have usually involved the long-distance journey of commodities” (1). In section last week we touched upon the notion of language and information as emergent commodities in our newly transnational world; along the same lines, it’s unsurprising that the advent of the internet has subverted old notions about commodification and international transactions.

I’m thinking specifically of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine about the Chinese “gold farming” industry that thrives on the exchange of virtual commodities (e.g. coins and weapons that characters collect in online games) for real money. This scenario brings to mind the “floating currencies” that global economy necessitates, according to Lee and LiPuma, though “[they] introduced a new level of risk into the system” (205). It seems to me that virtual coinage is the ultimate floating currency, not least because of its strikingly subjective value. You see, gold farming is disarmingly simple but very strange: For 12 hours a day each gold farmer “plays” an MMORPG like World of Warcraft, the escapist fantasy world transformed into a grueling workplace. “Circulation can animate a drive toward social totality,” write Lee and LiPuma, “when labor itself becomes a commodity on the market” (199). But is this type of “cultural transaction” really bringing communities together?

The article also refers to “the contemporary decline of the nation-state” in relation to “the increasingly transnational character of labor and the global mobility of finance capital” (Lee and LiPuma 208). Chinese gold farmers collecting virtual loot to sell online to wealthy, lazy foreign gamers makes an absurd but fitting example.

Lee and LiPuma write of “the social imaginary of the market…[which] combines buying and selling with formalized models of contract and exchange” (196), citing both the stock market and the older marketplaces “of mercantile history” (197). Today the online economy also garners its share of attention: in modern markets like eBay and Craigslist, consumers use neo-banks like PayPal to purchase commodities like virtual weapons. Though barely resembling marketplaces of the past, it serves the same function; in that respect the internet hearkens back, surprisingly, to a historical model. It is perhaps significant to note that the popular MMORPGs of gold farming fame tend to eschew futuristic world-building for fantasy landscapes evoking the distant past. The internet more than any other medium in history allows for the speedy international exchange of new ideas and goods, yet it has proved fertile ground for nostalgia. Indeed, Appadurai links “the politics of nostalgia [with] the postmodern commodity sensibility” (4), and later he uses the term “mediascape” to describe “proto-narratives of possible lives, fantasies” (9).

These days, what constitutes a commodity? Books and newspapers? Language and information? Digital weaponry? Labor? What about nostalgia and fantasy? You tell me.

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