The Future of Paracosm Economies

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his second article written for the program. In it, he explores the the concept of a paracosm economy.

In this blog series, we’ve been exploring just how real the real economy will be in the future. Not just the inherent “realness” of the economy, but the relevance of the real. Will the real economy continue to exist in any meaningful way in the future? The answer, at least in this particular blog, is an emphatic “No!”

Paracosm refers to an imaginary world, usually a very elaborate imaginary world, developed by a child early in their life, which may or may not stay with them into adulthood. Psychiatrists have used the term to denote a process of understanding loss and tragedy in early childhood by retreating into the imagination. The historical image of this is well known: A Victorian-era child sits despondent in a garden somewhere, the only adult who ever really loved them now dead; they are wearing formal “adult” clothes that in no way are conducive for garden-exploring; they are pale, forlorn, at the mercy of a world devoid of happiness. And their only escape will be an active imagination, a world of characters and high drama, a world just barely in their control.

Indeed, most early examples of paracosms and their creators (paracosmists) are the usual crowd: Emily Bronte and her paracosm “Gondal”, J.R.R. Tolkien and the languages of Middle-earth (the imaginary characters would emerge sometime after the imaginary languages that they spoke), Henry Darger, the “outsider” artist, who invented the world of the Vivian Sisters in his teens, and many others. Paracosms are considered a sign of high intelligence in children, an example of “worldplay”.

Beyond the rather obvious economic value of the imagination in contributing to books, film, and art in the physical world, what do paracosms have to do with the economy? The answer is in how we reconceive of that image of the precocious child. They are no longer wearing frilly Victorian garments, spending hours alone in a vast garden finding respite from disapproving servants. They have taken their imaginations online, and are increasingly being given the tools to construct their imaginative worlds – not out of words, not out of inanimate toys, or the rocks and sticks lying about the garden. But in the virtual world.

Consider a few ongoing trends. Prosumerism, where we generate our own products. The end of growth which, presumably, means children yet to be born will not enjoy the abundance that we currently fail to fully appreciate. And, of course, the multi-streamed and nefarious ways in which companies are trying to tap into (and latch onto) the hearts, minds, and imaginations of children at the earliest age possible.

In the future, a nearly infinite area of future growth will be our imaginations. We often look at “developing” nations as under-exploited areas of opportunity. Meanwhile, every child is walking around with a world of undercapitalized voices in their heads that could become its own nation, its own economy.

Imagine the two warring moons in a distant galaxy, and the market potential for their military industrial complex. Imagine a happily married couple, she a talking car, he a unicorn, navigating the exciting but expensive world of reproductive medicine to help them start a family of their own. The paradigm shift at play is moving from the current virtual market, which relies on human exchange on behalf of their avatars, to a virtual world of virtual exchange between multiple avatars created by a single human. Likely with no human knowledge of the exchange.

What does the rise and fall of our civilizations look like? Will they continue to exist after we are gone (regardless of their future growth potential)? A soulless universe without a creator that exists only for the pursuit of profit? Or will they be tied to us as if by a virtual umbilical cord?

© Adam Cowart 2018