Bread, cash, dosh, dough, loot, lucre, moolah, readies, the where-withal: call it what you like, money matters. Encompassing the global economy, money connects buyers and traders to circulate goods at a flourishing rate (Ferguson). But what is money? Does the green piece of paper in your pocket really have any intrinsic value? In the following paragraphs, we’ll consider what a dollar actually captures in value (and all currencies for that matter), as well as its natural evolution and integration into the virtual world. It’s easy to forget just how young the Internet is, and how radically it has shifted our daily lives in such a short time period.
Chances are that you, the reader, are older than what many technologists refer to as the conception and birth of the Internet. There were early forms in the 1960’s for exclusive government use in wars, but what we commonly regard as the Internet, a medium for sharing information over a peer-to-peer network, was created 18 years ago. In less than two decades, this newfound technology has entirely shifted our modes of thinking and communicating. What’s more, and a relatively recent shift, is how this evolution has taken hold of virtual currencies that have seemingly sprung out of thin air. This has radical implications for what can be regarded as one’s property, and affects you, as the reader, directly by transforming what you can claim personal ownership to.
It is my goal to help bring forth and elicit how some of these virtual currencies evolved, what they represent, and finally paint a picture for what the near future could look like. In the following pages, I will outline a historical perspective of virtual currencies and the philosophical ideas surmounting how property has been acquired, maintained, and protected for a large part of the previous four to five centuries.
The Internet is creating a whole new virtual infrastructure that seemingly resides in thin air, just beneath our noses. The electronic markets and virtual goods are booming along the information superhighway, exploding into new levels of growth at rates previously inconceivable. Just as railroads shifted our ability to transport goods and revolutionized our consumption (industrial revolution), we are witnessing a new revolution in experiencing a new rising form of wealth and possessions. Global virtual goods amounts to $7.3 billion industry (2010), with the U.S. market alone accounting for $2.5 billion (Sorom). Approximately 20% of American’s have bought a virtual good at some point in the past year. It is on pace to double every two years. We’ve witnessed an unregulated, decentralized virtual currency burst into a $1.5 billion dollar market, experiencing 3,000% growth just this past year alone with its inception just 4 short years old (Empson). Again, this is all via an Internet superhighway that chances are, is younger than you.
But to get up to this point, let’s backtrack and take a short walk over the historical evolution of virtual economies and analyze how they came into existence, and seemingly spiraled to the magnitude they are today. As stated in the introduction, we are so accustomed to how rapidly the Internet has changed our lives that we forget just how young it is. Throughout this paper, I will reference the dates of various virtual goods and commodities with “P.I.” that is—post internet inception, with the intention being to illustrate just how young and newly reformed these markets are.
One of the oldest case studies of virtual currencies is through, believe it or not, video games. Massively multi-player online role-playing games, or MMORPG’s, have experienced this real and virtual integration perhaps more so than any other medium. While games like World of Warcraft, created in 2004 (9yrs P.I.), are often the butt of jokes, it’s scaling and growth is nothing short of impressive. At its highest peak, World of Warcraft recognized 12 million players worldwide. Today it hovers closer to 10 million. If World of Warcraft was a country, it would have a greater populous than 70% of real countries. It is far from just a game, though. For many, playing World of Warcraft is a source of income and a profession for how they make their living. With such a prolific population raises a level of demand for goods just as you would witness in the real world. In the game, players can either spend hours and hours farming and killing monsters for coins and points to improve their character, or they can integrate real currencies with a few short clicks to simply buy virtual goods to save themselves time and effort. The integration of virtual and real economies thereby collides, bringing rise to a whole new digital working class. To reach this increasing demand for virtual commodities, in-game gold farmers spend their working day killing monsters to accumulate virtual currency to exchange on the market for real wealth.
An estimated $2.9 billion was spent on virtual goods in the U.S. alone in 2012 (7yrs P.I.), and has been on a doubling trend ever two years. Companies such as Facebook alone recognized $1 billion in revenue from 1.6% of their total user base spending money on virtual cakes, cards, and presents (Yung-Hui).
We can see that these virtual goods are circulating billions of dollars, but often it is overlooked in just how much personal property and wealth is tied up into these ecosystems. Virtual goods are often viewed in the light of novelty items, 0.99 cent games, Farmville add-ons, or birthday cakes and cards as listed in the Facebook example above; what is overlooked is just how much real estate and personal stake is at play in these virtual worlds. Perhaps the most case point example of this is in a Swedish based MMORPG called Entropia. In Entropia, the exchange of virtual currency for real world currency is written into the game mechanics. PED (Entropia currency) is exchanged at 10 PED : 1 USD. Users exchange their countries currency to buy PED to improve their character in-game. The PED currency is then used to buy new ammo, armor, food, and housing to advance their character. The in-game character accumulates new wealth and status, and then players can take their newly acquired items to cash out back to USD in an easy exchange.
In one famous case example, Jon Jacobs, an English businessman/actor purchased a virtual space-station resort on Entropia for an astronomical $100,000 USD – he even mortgaged his own house to do so! Jacobs then went on to transform the property adding virtual malls, dance clubs, and stadiums in this highly lucrative business. He then flipped his ‘virtual real-estate’ for $635,000 USD, a 635% return on his investment. Talk about smart investing; what we’re essentially dealing with here is virtual real-estate. You might ask who would spend that much money on a thing that doesn’t even exist in the real world? His reply via email was:
“When motion pictures were first invented there were a lot of critics saying that it was a novelty act and it would never amount to anything nor will be able to make any real money once the novelty wears off—last time I checked Avatar has grossed 2.7 billion dollars worldwide. Most recent example is MTV and Internet but then you know those stories well enough. Virtual Universe is the next logical step in world entertainment and although there are a lot of critics and people shaking heads it is here to stay and take its ranks among the greats.”
This virtual universe is exploding on the scene, and it’s only a matter of time before bigger and bigger players get involved. Would it be that outlandish to imagine a virtual real estate agency arising to improve property value? Jon Jacobs, working off of his own funding and resources (mortgaging his own house in the process), was able to make a half million dollars of his investing. We have already seen on the predominately individualistic level a 2.9 billion dollar economy that is doubling every two years; how much longer until corporations and agencies get involved where greater resources can be pooled together?
Again, we’ve seen the magnitude and extent that these economies can evolve. What’s the interesting point to note, however, is who actually can claim ownership to this property. Is spending real world money and transferring the rights enough to change ownership? We’re dealing with virtual sales that have reached over a half million dollars in value. Having a fix, clear guided system would seem quintessential for establishing any sort of confidence and aboutness for these newfound systems of exchange. Do we follow a Lockean theory of property, in that invested time and labor toiled over the land makes something yours? Or rather are the game developers the one’s working over the land by creating the world to begin with?
Interestingly enough, most of this is spelled out in EULA’s (end user licensing agreement). Take Blizzards EULA for example – “You may not purchase, sell, gift or trade any Account, or offer to purchase, sell, gift or trade any Account, and any such attempt shall be null and void. Blizzard owns, has licensed, or otherwise has rights to all of the content that appears in the Program. You agree that you have to right or title in or to any such content, including the virtual goods or currency appearing or originating in the Game, or any attributes associated with the Account or stored on the Service. Blizzard does not recognize and virtual property transfers executed outside of the Game or the purported sale, gift or trade in the “real world” of anything related to the Game. Accordingly, you may not sell items for “real” money or otherwise exchange items for value outside the Game.”
That still doesn’t cast out the potential rise of conflict, especially given how rapidly these virtual economies are scaling. New issues are arising that these games couldn’t have imagined existing beforehand, and there simply does not exist a court doctrine precedent to address these concerns (remember, what we regard as the Internet is only 18 years old). Not to mention these MMORPG’s are beginning to realize the scale these economies are growing, and rather than police their own servers, they are administering for real dollar exchange in controlled settings rather than 3rd party contractors. Blizzard (creators of World of Warcraft), for example, enact the Guardian Cub, an experiment in which users can spend really dollars to buy a virtual pet. Thus far it’s been a huge success and just opening the flood gates to future revenue models Blizzard may try and employ.
This still doesn’t answer the question, however, of who ultimate owns the goods. In Entropia as well, the game described earlier with Jon Jacobs, has a free exchange of virtual and real monies that is written into the game mechanics. Although users are exchanging really dollars to buy into the virtual currency, Entropia still claims rights to all ownership and ability to delete content without notice. With accounts holding value in over a half million dollars, one cannot help but question whether how strong this would hold up in court. We just simply haven’t seen virtual economies to this scale before. Until a precedent is established, it’s essentially any man’s game in what is a seemingly equivalent of the “virtual-wild-west.” Once corporations and agencies enter the realm to get their share of virtual property and wealth, which I estimate will happen within the next 5 years, a precedent is going to become imperative.
I would make the claim that it is the user who put in the time and effort to develop his character and property, and it is them who can claim end ownership. A gaming agency can create complex worlds with content out the wazoo, but without a large user basis circulating the economy, the content holds no value. The value is derived from all the players and hands involved. That’s what makes these virtual worlds spin.
But even if that is the case, this raises another issue that simply doesn’t exist in the real world: the power of the developers to alter the playing field and terrain of the land. Natural resources that we have used throughout history have held a consistent supply for the most part. Although resources at times go through much greater periods of demand and scarcity, they are nevertheless rather consistent. A new material simply doesn’t conjure out of thin air. The same cannot be said in the virtual worlds. 10,000,000 gold mines can be added with the click of a button by a software developer, greatly shifting the supply and diluting the value of all gold in circulation.
Think of what that means for those who have an invested interest in protecting and maintaining their virtual assets. Value and supply can be altered in a split-second. The world is dictated by the developer’s digression unless a code of conduct was in place. Virtual money, like real world money, simply boils down to confidence in the regulator. Should the developers abstain to a standard of artificial scarcity? I don’t foresee courts regulating MMORPG’s to adhere to a particular set of standards and restrictions for what content they are allowed to implement and change at a moment’s notice. Users, after all, are voluntarily opting in to playing the game. It raises some interesting opportunities, though, from what could happen with insider trading with larger corporations in a realm in which it is 1000’s of times easier to execute, 1000’s of times faster in transaction time, and potentially legal at this point in time, too.
Although we’ve spent the greater majority of the analysis thus far on virtual currencies within MMORPG’s, they are far from the only currencies that have seemingly exploded on the scene; they just happen to be one of the oldest (“oldest” in this context is less than 10yrs P.I.). A more recent rise, and consequently something with even greater ramifications in the realm of virtual-real world economy integration, are crypto-currencies—with the most famous being Bitcoin.
The Internet has left plenty of paper-based institutions beaten and behind. Newspapers, books, post-its, notebooks, magazines, ads—essentially anything that was once paper has seen its wake to virtual form. How much longer until money goes the same fate? A crypto-currency (in this case I will use Bitcoin as the example) is an open-source software over a peer-to-peer network. It replaces state-backed currencies with a digital format that isn’t subjugated to a regulator’s self-interest; it cuts across international boundaries, and is impossible to duplicate and forge based in its complex algorithmic key nature.
A Bitcoin is stored in a highly encrypted digital key value held in virtual wallets. When a Bitcoin is spent or traded, the token key is compared in the list directory, and the transaction is complete with a transfer to the new account code name. When this action is performed, the entire Bitcoin market is alerted of the new ownership. This means that every single trade and action is registered among all users in possession of a Bitcoin. Due to its open-source forum and sharing across the entire network, the encryptions are next to impossible to duplicate (that isn’t to say that crime doesn’t occur, we’ll get to that in a bit). And system protection is available for all users.
Many observers of Bitcoin don’t get how a virtual key can have any value at all. How does it have value if it doesn’t have anything backing it! Let’s begin by looking at what money really is, and what value the USD represents in particular. Currency is nothing more than a reflection of confidence in a medium of exchange. Currency, in any form, essentially boils down to confidence. A level of confidence must exist in an items ability to substitute as a medium of exchange—whether it is the dollar bill, bitcoin, or even a lucky magic rabbit foot.
Dollars have no inherent value minus the paper they are printed on. Its value is derived from the confidence garnished from all the “players” willing to buy in and accept the dollar as a medium of exchange. The dollar evolved because a free open market of pure-commodity exchange becomes increasingly difficult and very burdensome to facilitate trade. Let’s pretend you are a shoe tailor, and want to purchase some chickens. It could be quite the challenge to find a chicken farmer who wants to trade for your shoes and come to a fair value of exchange. What if the chicken farmer doesn’t need shoes at the moment, but would prefer oranges instead? You would be forced to go find an orange vendor, and trade with him, but then perhaps he would want another commodity, so another vendor, and so on and so forth. Because commodities are normally dealt in integers eg you wouldn’t buy 3/4ths of a shoe, the divisibility of item evaluation and the means of exchange become increasingly difficult.
The dollar (and all currencies, for that matter) bypasses this problem by establishing a ready medium of exchange that encapsulates the value of a market at a given time (value for shoes, value for chickens, value for oranges, etc). The success in the dollar is its ability to convey what value lies in a given commodity and its ease of divisibility. Once again, currency is summed up by the word “confidence.” The people using the dollar have confidence that the green piece of paper with accurately represent their transaction. A level of confidence exists that this green piece of paper won’t drastically fluctuate in price eg you wouldn’t want your dollar representing 10 chickens one day, then only 1 the next, then 200 the following. Such fluctuations would leave a market in chaos and would fail to actualize the acclaimed property as a medium for exchange. A level of stability must exist. Lastly, there is a level of confidence that the issuers of currency (in this case, the FEDs), won’t print out a bunch of new dollars, thereby de-valuing all the ones in your possession.
Let’s begin by analyzing some of the things Bitcoin does exceptionally well before looking at the potential downsides. Bitcoin uses the combination of public-key cryptography and peer-to-peer networking to create a virtual analogy of gold. Coins are “mined” or released over a controlled period to avert the damages of hyper-inflation that many real world currencies face under pressures of government officials. The coins can never reach more than 21 million in circulation, when it will reach its peak in the year 2140. They will also be issued with delayed admission, meaning the numbers of minable coins each year will half in value every couple of years. With a controlled issuing of new coins and a fixed cap for inflation, many, including myself, would argue that Bitcoin demonstrates the same properties that the gold standard held for years. Like gold, Bitcoin is a decentralized currency that isn’t regulated by one country.
Officials and those who issue the circulation of a currency can behave off of self-interest, such as spending more money right before election time or funding wars. Secondly, they are subjected to defaults in the case they borrow too much and cannot pay off their debt. Bitcoin addresses this by acting as a Universal medium of exchange, rather than one country or unions backing.
Another touted benefit is the divisibility of Bitcoin, adding to its fluid ability of exchange. As explained in the shoe-chicken example, having a divisible factor is essentially for dealing with unlike items. Gold is a bulky item that you can’t just split in half readily if you want to make a purchase. It also isn’t something you would want to lug around in your pocket all day. The dollar is better at this, operating under base 10. Bitcoin, however, takes the cake as far as possible combinations. While only 21 million will ever be issued, there really are 2,099,999,997,690,000 possible atomic units by design. A Bitcoin is highly divisible by a factor of 8 (10^8) meaning that each coin can represent one-hundred million 0.00000001 BTC coins. This property, coupled with the easy of transfer and verification, has some very powerful implications for acting as a medium of exchange.
The U.S. debt as of April 1st, 2013 is $16,774,241,800,000 and showing no signs of slowing down. Dollars can be printed in the thousands, greatly diluting in value every dollar you have to your name. Bitcoin steps around this constraint buy having a fixed release schedule in which currency is “mined.” It can never be debased by politicians trying to get re-elected or countries paying off huge debts. If you bought a good for $20 in 1913, in today’s money it would cost you $489.02, a cumulative rate of 2245.1% inflation.
Thus far I’ve painted Bitcoin in a very favorable light. I am admittedly a big fan of the implications of what it could do for circulating global economy and trade. However, to give a complete synopsis of Bitcoin, we must analyze why it won’t work. In science when a hypothesis is made, the scientist seeks out ways to disprove their theory, rather than affirmation (what is known as confirmation bias in philosophy). We will adhere to this method as well. I could only contend that all politicians and party affiliates alike would seek to disprove their theory rather than confirm, but I digress.
There are many concerns to address that threaten the confidence level of Bitcoin. Like any currency, there are limitations and restraints, especially with something this new—created in 2009 (14yrs P.I.). Once again, the value is all in the confidence. The growing valuation brings with it increased hacker attempts. Bitcoin encryption codes are stored in virtual wallets. Many times, this takes place through companies which, in many ways, act as a Bitcoin bank. Some individuals, however, choose to store their own encryption on their own. These encryption codes have been, and still are, subject to hackers and thefts. To date, the largest attack was on a man who lost 25,000 BTC for what was valued at $487,749 at the time (June 2011). While many advocates of the Bitcoin will point out that it is harder to duplicate a BTC than a USD, it nevertheless does not address the concern that all one would have to do is access a computer’s hard drive. Once you are in, stealing Bitcoins is easier than grabbing a wallet in real life, and there’s no recourse for getting them back.
Bitcoins have also been associated with money laundering and illegal market activity. Because the coins are encrypted in a code, transactions are measured as encryption with encryption over the peer-to-peer network, meaning they are exchanged as strings of letters and digits without a profile of who is actually doing the spending/buying. This has been a means for people to buy illegal narcotics or weapons off of forums like the Silk Road. Due to the aire of mystery that surrounds the coins, and due to their relatively new nature, there is a great deal of uncertainty with how governments will respond (certainly they don’t want such accessible means to illegal activity).
Secondly, there is tax laundering associated with it in which individuals can avoid taxes. I will contend these two points with a couple of claims. Although the trades are conducted as a string of code with another string of code within the system rather than a personal profile, transactions could ultimately be traced back to IP addresses. This is in contention for both tracking narcotics and ensuring citizens are paying their taxes. Admittedly it would be a very complex system to track (remember, all transactions are registered within the whole system) it is still very doable. It could also be argued that dollars are used to purchase illegal narcotics and weapons in billion dollar underground industries, as well, but that doesn’t mean we are going to go and outlaw the dollar tomorrow.
Governments certainly do not like their citizens issuing other forums of currency, especially if it is associated with narcotics and weapons. Some of the fear in Bitcoin (lowering its confidence level) is government intervention rendering Bitcoin activity illegal. My counteraction would be that it is already at a scale exceedingly difficult for any one government intervention to wipe it out completely. What I would say is more likely to happen is government to target big players much like the file sharing with bittorrents (oddly enough, Bitcoin derives its name and concept from bittorrents). When file sharing with music and videos started to become popular in the early 90’s, there were many questions for how governments would respond. No western countries have banned the protocol of file sharing, as it still exists in greater proportions today. Rather, they have targeted the hotspots of illegal activity, facilitators such as Pirate Bay.
I envision a similar occurrence with Bitcoin. Granted, new currency vs sharing media freely are two different extremes. Admittedly so, a government would have much greater reason and demand to regulate the first. I do not pretend to know how this will shape out, but rather portray theoretical situations and implications if they do.
The current biggest weakness Bitcoin exhibits, in my opinion, is its fluctuating valuation. As described in the chicken-shoe traders example, a medium of exchange must be consistent if it is to maintain a safe level of confidence eg it can’t represent 10 chickens one day, 1 the second day, then 200 the next. Bitcoin has exploded on the scene. It grew from $4.40 a year ago, $40 two months ago, $260 a month ago, and then crashed to where it is at $140 as of today (as of 4/26/13). Its volatility has led to a great financial gains for many early investors. It is going to fluctuate a great deal, as it is still in early forms, but until it holds some level of stability, it will merely act as a boom and bust instrument for some individuals to cash out big, and others to lose a fortune.
Bitcoin currently encapsulates a $2.5 billion dollar market in just 4 short years of life, this is still dwarfed by the $15 trillion GDP the United States produces. Bitcoin has a lot of growing to do if it is to come anywhere close to acting as a consistent, reliable exchange. Much like the bubble burst we experienced a couple weeks ago when Bitcoin reached $265, a similar bubble burst was experienced back in June 2011 in which in drastically fell from $30 to less than $1. I envision this trend continuing for a couple of cycles until it can scale to the magnitude of capturing the entire global economy.
After its second notorious crash, Bitcoin leveled off at around $70 before quickly rebounding to the $140 it is at today in just 2 short weeks. This trend will keep continuing (with the next bubble occurring when it has evaluation at $1000 or so) until it has grown to the point where it is no longer a speculative “stock” so to say, and more so exhibits the characteristics of currency we discussed previously.
Finally, I’d like to conclude this analysis by painting a theoretical picture of what future virtual currency could look like based on my analysis of the growing integration between virtual and real words. I thought the purchaser of Jon Jacobs virtual space station (his name was excluded) perhaps said it best in his reasoning comparing how pixar animation videos exploded on the scene when they were original scoffed at. Productions, like Avatar, have profited billions in revenue, and I hold his sentiments in that virtual Universes are going the same way.
We are witnessing an increasing merge with digital profiles. Just think of how much time and interaction you spend on websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. I’d be willing to bet that most readers spend more time on that then managing their investment portfolio (I’m just as guilty as well). This has many interesting implications for how we have evolved to conduct social interaction. I envision virtual profiles becoming more and more complex, until eventual an exact digital replica can be created of you that encrypt your very same properties, personality, and traits that can be garnished through complex big data analysis.
All technology is essentially an extension of human abilities. The phone is an extension of our mouth and ears, the car an extension of our feet. Virtual worlds will be enacted in a way in which you could connect with friends, families, and strangers in seemingly-real digital encounters. It will Matrix like, in that we will transcend the barriers of time and space to be able to take form and be with friends, family, corporations, and trade networks instantaneously across the globe. In fact, in many sense, we already do. With the click of a button, you can shoot a thought via Twitter (9yrs P.I.) into virtual space that transcends space and time barriers. Knowledge can be shared instantaneously across the globe. These are abilities that our ancestors would have been struck in awe the power and extent of our abilities. The next logical step, in my eyes, is a full on virtual profile and avatar of yourself that can further transcend space/time barriers. This is where the virtual worlds (thereby virtual entertainment arising as seen in the Jon Jacobs virtual space station example) will explode into existence.
Lastly, I envision reputation taking on a new forum of currency. Profile analysis and reputation are going to go hand-and-hand. This is going to be a very important thing to protect, with claims of slander and liable taking a whole new level. New programs, such as Klout, measure the level of one’s social influence within their data graphs. This could be used in a variety of positions to size up just how good one’s contact network is. We’ve early begun to see early forums of this in where potential employees are analyzed by the network they begin with them. This is also going to raise the bar for what slander and liable mean to someone’s reputation. We witnessed in the aftermath of the Boston bombings last week the virtual witch hunt which sprung over popular sites such as Reddit. Slander and liable become increasingly facile with the easy of sharing thoughts and information, and increasingly important in protecting individual rights.
Thus far we have covered the evolution of virtual goods from pretend cakes and birthday cards to half million dollar space mansions. We have analyzed the pros and cons of what a decentralized crypto-currency could do for international trade, as well as paint a picture for what the future digital-integrated world may look like. I hope you have found this analysis insightful in your understanding of recent growing virtual trends so you may be adequately equipped for future ahead of us. Will any of this actually happen? Only time will tell. One thing I will say for certain is the evolution is going to reach an unprecedented speed. If you blink, you might miss it.
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