Chinese New Year
As a digital nomad, I happened to be in Kuala Lumpur this month. Malaysia has filled its capital with many huge shopping malls, and for the Chinese New Year celebration, these prestigious temples of consumerism are all decorated around the fascinating theme of prosperity.
Wishing your peers a prosperous new year seems like a fitting thing to do inside a shopping mall where all memories of the warm and humid forest are freeze-dried away by proudly expensive air-conditioning. It somehow links the concept of success to the concept of wealth.
Human societies have a hierarchy of power ranks, that allow them to function more efficiently. These ranks are often assigned based on success, whether this is success at accumulating resources, or success in directly fighting opponents in some sort of verbal or physical warfare.
Wealth is a way to measure success and establish ranks in our society. If everybody pursues wealth, then wealth can act as a points system to see who is more successful and should be assigned more power. This creates a game where the goal is to accumulate wealth.
Our gamified lives
Everybody loves games. Especially we "professionals" can get so focused on our carreer that we even define a big part of our identity based on it. And our carreers have been gamified into a ladder game: if you work hard enough, you will be able to reach a position in which you will have a higher rank, earn more money, will probably have to work even harder, etcetera.
It is not only our carreer paths that have been gamified. Building up wealth is also a game in itself, where each dollar is a point in the game. Simply owning a big house or a big car is a goal in itself in our gamified lives.
But in the past, this game made sense, and there was actually a desirable prize to win. We used to have to work hard in order to obtain luxury. You had to buy 6 expensive audiophile devices in order to copy a record onto a cassette tape, and it would still sound shitty.
You needed a VHS recorder and a Cannon Ray Tube television, and then you needed furniture to house all these devices, and then a bigger house, with space for all this furniture. And before you could record video, you needed to save up for a CamCorder. Flights were expensive too, and they were sold in inefficient high street shops. Even simple things like non-stick frying pans were expensive to buy.
This made the prosperity game challenging and fun. But all these things are now cheap. The fact that we can now have great luxury for much less money, hollows out the whole incentive and prize structure of the prosperity ladder. It undermines the whole game we have all been playing since the rise of consumerism.
Nowadays, a virtual form of luxury is within reach of a growing percentage of people on Earth. A laptop is much more light-weight, and much more attainable than your hi-fi cabinet from 20 years ago, but it gives you a much higher level of luxury. Once you have a laptop and some good headphones, you just need a daypack with some clothes, a passport and a toilet bag, and you are free. The light-weight, virtual luxury of a digital nomad is something that was impossible a few decades ago.
Especially if you have the freedom to work remotely, which for most professionals should be obtainable if you just take the effort to organize it, then you can have immense luxury for very little money.
And it not only applies to programmers traveling through South-East Asia. You can also just live in a cheap area of Berlin and share a flat with some other virtual professionals like musicians, actors and fashion designers. As e-commerce and mechanical automation continue to make our world ever more efficient, less people will have to work in travel agencies and coal mines, and more people are now able to live as "creatives", creating art work that does not rely on any physical resources.
Obviously, working remotely is an essential pre-requisite of virtual luxury. If your job or the people you love tie you to Munich or Manhattan, then your life is not going to be cheap, and a percentage of the world population will always work on farms and in factories. But the option of escaping the money game will become obtainable for a growing number of people, at least during some part of their life.
If you have all your projects on your laptop, then you no longer have to commute to an office, you no longer need a car. Or an office. Or even a highway. The point is: online life is infinitely more resource-efficient than the physical life we were restricted to a few decades ago. In the online world, people interact much more as hippie artists, enjoying prosperity without spending money.
And the less money you spend, the less your worries about carreer opportunities will weigh down on your freedom, and the more luxury you will enjoy. Your social status will be much more influenced by the art works you are proud of, and much less by your prosperity.
Rebooting the game
This shift is a huge shock to how society is organized. It's starting to reboot the game by undermining its incentive structure. You can't play a game if you don't care about winning.
Prosperity, that intriguing mix between success and wealth, will become less and less important as a ladder system for people who will simply all have "enough" points in the game. Because once you achieve virtual prosperity, there is no challenge in achieving enough money to live the way you want to.
Your spending choice will be limited by how much you can eat and which ecological footprint you want to morally allow yourself. Not by whether or not you have enough money left. This is currently true for a small percentage of global society, but that percentage will only grow as the price of virtual prosperity continues to drop, and conciousness about the ecological consequences of consumerism continues to rise. Therefore, wealth will cease to be the primary organizing structure of our society.
One big difference is how you interact with the people around you. As you focus less on materialism, and money becomes less relevant to you, your ability to impress people with the brand of your car or your watch will disappear. At the same time you will probably be less impressed by the wealth of other people you meet.
Of course Lamborghini cars will not lose their appeal overnight. And much of the pamper-power of a Starbucks coffee would be lost if it wasn't overprized. But as more of our productivity has been virtualized into cyberspace, so has parts of our consumption and of our social status. A concept of "virtual prosperity" is starting to take shape.
As a programmer for instance, your social "rank" is measured much more by the number of people watching your github repos than by your job title in a money-job or your wealth in the physical world. Online respect, clout, and reputation are the new "points system" for our gamified lives.
Decentralized global government
I think we will see, within our lifetimes, the dawn of a web-based global government, that will make the paper-based (and often money-based) governments largely obsolete.
Here in Malaysia for example, it is the government who has claimed ownership of the rainforest and is now selling it to commercial companies for money. There is a rumour there will be elections in the first half of 2013, but television stations are not allowed to broadcast speeches by opposition leaders.
I think the web is our best hope to fight money-driven corruption and improve democracy in such an environment. Through this open and free platform, bloggers as well as readers can "vote" for or against brands, campaigns, and causes. Through the web, we will know exactly under which conditions certain goods were produced, and branding becomes ever more decentralized.
Big brands now have to engage in dialog with individual activist bloggers. This makes the web into a decentralized global government, that didn't exist twenty years ago. And since the web is not owned by anyone, it is starting to give us the democracy we need, to establish a global human society of fair trade and protected commons.
As money becomes less important in our choices as humans, the power of money-based companies becomes less, and the collective power of humans increases. Money will no longer be able to hire us just by offering a high salary. Humans will be free to make the choices they believe in, without having to give up their always-sufficient luxury and prosperity.
After we have bought all the things we need during a day, we will have excess buying power left over to donate to the World Wildlife Fund, or to choose for certified fair trade and ecologically sourced products.
It is hard to say what our society will look like in 50 years. But as money becomes less important to humans, nation state governments and the wars they fight will hopefully become less important in our everyday lives. The rise of online society will not change the definition of success and power, nor how these concepts affect human interaction, and there will always be inequality and conflicts.
But because in the online world the basic resources can be copied indefinitely without depleting, and there are infinite amounts of space to squat, the concepts of wealth and "prosperity" will likely get a very different meaning during the reboot our society is going through right now.
Michiel de Jong is a nomadic programmer and a co-unorganizer of the Unhošť unhosted unconference, Hacker Beach, and the Terms of Service; Didn't Read project.