Support this podcast and help me keep going! Donate via PayPal

Virtually You

Zynga reported a $22.8m loss. Its shares plummeting, analysts are forecasting an uncertain future for the maker of the hugely popular game, Farmville, and six other top games on Facebook.

Whoa! Unsatisfactory revenues for the developer of popular games? Yes, because the number of users of largely free games doesn't reflect earnings.

Zynga makes its money by selling virtul goods, like tractors for Farmville. Selling virtual goods for a web-based game is a relatively new business model. No inventory to warehouse, no deliveries to make, and no storefront to pay for. Selling virtual bits and bytes (things that don't exist but that people pay for) sounds great, but is the experiment failing?

I am tempted to argue that paying real money for a virtual tractor in a game that I don't personally own, is a waste. But consider this - we have been trading in virtual goods for quite a while. Some examples:

  • Virtual money (credits) for online stores - eventually you can exchange the currency for physical goods, but you can't hold the cash in your hands.
  • Electronic books - although you can read a book that you bought for your eReader, the book only exists as bits and bytes.
  • Smartphone applications - they are right there in the palm of your hand for you to use, but they are not physical objects.

I'm sure you can think of other examples. The point is that we do readily part with our money for virtual goods - products that we can't touch, feel, or hold. We do so because although the purchased item is only a series of 1s and 0s, it benefits us somehow in the physical reality. So why should buying a nonexistent tractor for our entertainment be any different?

Right now, many of us (whether we acknowledge it or not) live two lives - real life offline, and virtual life online. Countless articles have been published discussing the effect of one on the other (such as here and here and here). In real life a person might be an introverted antisocial. In virtual life that same person might be the most outgoing socialite on Facebook. It's a sort of sanctioned (encouraged?) schitzophrenia where we can be two different people at once.

The more I think about this relatively new phenomenon of living in both the physical and virtual worlds, the more I am fascinated, excited, and a little worried by how far it is going to go.

DARPA has allocated $7m of next year's budget to developing a system for soldiers to remotely control a "surrogate" to do the dangerous jobs, much like in the movie Avatar. That's not a big stretch from using unmanned drones to engage the enemy on our behalf, but it is a far cry from simply living two lives in your online and offline worlds.

But it's not enough.

Gizmag reports that Russian entrepreneur Dmitri Itskov is heading a startling project to enable the digitization of the human mind by 2045. In other words, within three decades a person's consciousness could be downloaded to a microchip. Stuff of science fiction? The author of the article contends that despite that predictions of technological advancement in certain areas (such as AI) have entirely missed the mark, the technology needed for this project to succeed might already exist, or very nearly exist.

This opens up an entire new world of ethical questions. What is a person - his body, his consciousness? When is a person dead - when his physical body dies, when power is cut to his digitized personality? Is it okay to euthanize someone's body if you are going to ensure that he lives on inside the electrical circuits of a robot? If someone is born physically disabled, is it better to download their brain into a fully functioning android, or let them live with the physical disability? It's all too much, but the Russian Ministry of Education and Science and the Dalai Lama don't think so - they support it.

The microchip, Internet and related technologies have sky-rocketed the human race to a place where the rate of change has the potential to outpace our ability to fathom its impact. The consolation is that you now have the next 30 years to play Farmville and contemplate a completely virtual you.


  1. the smartphone apps are not the limit. any software is virtual. thats way companies like Mircosoft, Adobe Apple... license their software to you

    1. True, but at least in the good-old-days PC software came on a CD, which was a physical thing you could hold. Of course, that's history now as a large percentage of software is downloadable - even the manuals are either PDFs or HTML.

    2. If you haven't already, you should watch the movie, "Surrogates". Apart from it being a cool Bruce Willis flick, it addresses some of the questions you have posed regarding reality vs virtuality.

  2. thoughtful article! raises questions as to what is value, what's the value of 'real' -- i.e. tangible -- stuff versus virtual stuff, and when's something really worthless. ultimately it seems the answer is what people are willing to pay for, as opposed to universal acknowledgement that something's obviously a ripoff. so much of marketing has always been prompting people to imagine what their lives will be like once they've acquired a certain product or service. so i guess marketing virtual products isn't that different. i might argue, though, that this isn't necessarily something all that new. we've been losing ourselves in tv for over 60 years, movies for over 90 years, and books for almost 400. this is also virtual reality, in some manner. recently, my son had to read a book for school, which i decided to re-read, after 30 years, for the sake of being able to discuss it with him. at some points, I felt passing a physical book back and forth with another human being to be an oddly quaint pleasure, one I realize is becoming increasingly anachronistic.

  3. Augmented reality is probably the ultimate when it comes to selling a service that isn't there. This amazing and disturbing israeli-made video is a must-see:


Post a Comment

Support this podcast and help me keep going!
Donate via PayPal