The End of a (Virtual) Way of Life

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his fifth article written for the program. In it, he explores the virtual spaces where we currently base our economy.

10,000 years ago, our economies were largely mobile and borderless. We roamed, we hunted, we foraged. One of the earliest clashes of economic models was when land ownership and borders, spurred on by the Agricultural Revolution, disrupted the nomadic lives of a decreasing proportion of the population. From the earliest evolutionary days of humanity until now, hunting and gathering was the dominant societal and economic model for approximately 90% of our history. Today, nomadic peoples number around 40 million.

Parallels between nomadic hunter-gatherer societies and contemporary, Generation X knowledge workers were made in the late 90’s. But these observations were more often than not quirky, meant to emphasize a “new” way of working. Not to mention participate in a bit of generational bashing that has not evolved a whole lot now that it is being applied to millennials.

Foraging societies are typically characterized as not placing value on fixed resources (i.e. land), are collective, typically non-hierarchical societies with immediate-return economies. They derive benefits from their activities immediately, not in a delayed-return economy where benefits from activities occur over a period of time and are often associated with property rights of some sort.

Virtual foraging is such an innate activity that we do not even consider it as such – no different than our nomadic ancestors. We “search” the web for what we are looking for, we hunt, and we roam across countries and worlds. While traditionally this has meant searching for food, what real difference is there between finding food and finding information that can be utilized in such a way as to monetize that information and purchase food? Virtual foraging and knowledge work is not typically an immediate-return economic environment, but the other characteristics of a foraging society are evident in the form of non-hierarchical groups without fixed resources, exploring open spaces.

Much has been written about censorship and net neutrality. There is still a very strong assumption that the virtual world is an open, borderless world. But as we increasingly migrate – and colonize – virtual spaces, will this continue? The bulk of the conversation has been at the micro level. We typically point to Big Brother-type influencers. Nefarious government organizations monitoring and censoring us, or corporations manipulating us. The issue is never us – it’s someone else. At the macro level, we see echoes of our old ways of living and working. Vast open plains, forests, and oceans. A limitless world for us to wander and forage within. And the relatively brisk pace at which we have begun to colonize, divide, and weaponize this space.

We have an unnerving ability to replicate our collective behaviors across time and space. It took thousands of years to erect barriers and borders on earth, and less than 20 years to begin the process in the virtual world. This is our capitalist model in its truest form: find or create space, break it up into pieces, monetize those pieces, move on. Capitalist free “safe spaces” have been created, but the walls erected around them, like all walls, don’t last for long. That capitalism is a relatively recent phenomenon in human existence is both reassuring and frightening.

What else is left? Creating or finding more space. Making the intangible tangible. Taking the unreal and making it real. If it is unmonetized, monetize it. When the first group of settlers head for Mars, it should not surprise anyone if one of those settlers has already incorporated a new business. “Martian Fencing Ltd.” You know, just in case.

© Adam Cowart 2018