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Farmer's Market
Jamais Cascio, 10 Dec 05

ookifshot.jpgLast July, I wrote about the phenomenon of "Chinese farmers" -- people (almost always in China) employed to play online games such as World of Warcraft, collecting virtual money and valuable items for resale in real-world exchanges. This practice is said to be a multi-million dollar industry, despite being against the rules of most online games. Now the New York Times has caught wind of the story, and takes us behind the scenes of one of these "virtual sweatshops."

The article provides some interesting depth to the story, such as the observation that there may be more than 100,000 people now employed as "farmers" in China, and some example prices for goods and services (although it should be noted that the "100 grams of gold" claim is factually incorrect, as the game in question tallies gold in coins, not by weight). The accompanying multimedia presentation is worth a listen, as well.

This could well be the globalized industry to watch as a metric for the degree of development of a nation. Online role-playing games are extraordinarily popular. World of Warcraft is said to have over 4 million players, while the Lineage series may have far more than that, almost entirely in Korea, Japan and China. The buyers of these virtual goods and gold are people who have more money than time; right now, the buyers are largely in the US, Europe, Japan and increasingly in Korea. But as Internet access continues to spread, and places like China continue to grow economically, we will almost certainly see the locations of buyers and sellers change.

The proliferation of Chinese virtual farmers is clear demonstration that language is not an issue. Therefore, there's no reason why the next generation of online farmers couldn't be in India, Kazakhstan, or Kenya. At the same time, a growing number of Chinese gamers may well see the value of outsourcing their gold & magic sword accumulations to places with cheaper labor. Developing nations could follow the path of Internet access leading to virtual world service provision leading to virtual world service demand.

This is a model for what globalization in the fabrication scenario could look like. Overseas labor is cheap, but not free, and rising fuel prices will inevitably make imported goods more expensive. There will come a point, probably sooner than most pundits expect, that running shoes and CD players can be more cheaply printed (at home or at the mall) than imported. At some point in the next decade or so, the bulk of globalized labor will be in online services. Such services won't all be connected to online games, but the model will be the same: money exchanged for time performing tasks that require little more than a bit of training and a broadband connection.

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It's interesting that you mention fabricators as being the doom, in the near or medium term future, of cheap overseas factory labor and that such economies may transition to software-based goods and services. We've already seen extensive outsourcing of software development and support to India, Russia and China.

So what's left in the post-industrial world to make money at? Design? Entertainment? Journalism?

I remember reading a science fiction story recently where one of the lead characters made a living at being a professional brainstormer. He'd come up with ideas and solutions and then give them to others--ala Creative Commons or GPL. In return he was treated like royality and given lots of perks and comps.

I'm a bit suspicious that such an idea would work let alone generate an honest living. But as the NYT article shows sometimes global trade can be utterly surreal.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 10 Dec 05

Ripe for the automating, I think. why would you let a person do that? Once AI can perform something succesfully, it's just a piece of software... As to what we'll do for a living, I think it's more logical to assume money will go (in the way we know it); instead there'll be credits to award any kind of design.

Posted by: Rik on 11 Dec 05

Man, what a surreal little world we live in ... what a surreal world...

Posted by: Jesse Jenkins on 11 Dec 05

ItÂ’s wonderful that technology is letting people with talent, drive, and vision can get their work out there so successfully, cutting out the media middlemen.

Posted by: QQ on 12 Dec 05

A long time ago (early 70's) I read a short story I believe was called "The Occupation". I think it was written by Isaac Asimov although I'm unable to find it. The gist of the story was that in society the children went through an education process much like they do today. The difference is that upon graduation, they apply for what amounts to a downloadable job that they "receive" at some kind of job fair. Immediate expertise. Some occupations were mundane and some were highly desirable and students competed for those top tier jobs.

The story concerns a bright young man who takes his test hoping to get one of the top occupations (I think it was in computer science). Only they send him off to an asylum instead.

In the asylum he finds other people like himself. His new roommate is brilliant, yet contentedly lounges the day away. Unable to bear a life in such a place, he escapes. And once he does, is offered the best job that can be offered: developing the new things for which there is no "download".

Posted by: csven on 12 Dec 05

Asimov's short story, written in 1957, is called "Profession" and thanks to Csven for pointing it out to me! I just spent the last two hours or so reading it on the Web. Glad that I did!

Also I was a little spooked Sven's page about milling weapons with desktop fabricators. Has anyone else considered this downside to fab labs yet?

Posted by: Pace Arko on 13 Dec 05

Thank You, Pace! (I've been looking for that recently and been unable to find it).

Posted by: csven on 13 Dec 05



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