virtually working or working virtually

I just finished reading Play Money, Julian Dibbell’s account of his time spent doing Real Money Trading in Ultima Online. It’s a quick read and interesting text that combines his personal experiences and thoughts are combined with a good discussion of a variety of intellectual foundations: economics, ludology, computer science, and so on. I’m looking forward to discussing the text in my Writing in Cyberspace course.

I’ve never been a big proponent of virtual reality. I suppose if you want to be an elven mage or a starship captain, then VR is the place to be. Now, don’t get me wrong: there were certainly times in my life when I would have loved to have spent time doing such things… and did, just in the ol’ role-playing game sense (yes, I was one of those kinds of geeks.). I played Ultima in the 80s, long before it went online and became an economic force larger than that of some nations. I remember when VRML came out, and I even have spent some time teaching in an (albeit two-dimensional) VR classroom at Georgia Tech in the late nineties.

The thing I could never figure out is… why? Obviously I could understand the motivation of networked communication, but I never saw the advantage of undertaking that communication between 2-D or 3-D avatars with talk balloons or what have you. Of course that was also in the days of dial-up.

Nowadays there are plenty of motivations, most of them with $ signs attached. There’s the RMT economy associated with online gaming and the business opportunities of Second Life. However much of it is tied to the importance of play and sociality in work and commerce. That is, I can go to eBay or Amazon and shop, but perhaps I would rather wander a virtual mall with friends? Maybe. I can work and communicate with colleagues and students by a variety of means but perhaps meeting in Second Life reintroduces the occassion (place and time) and play of learning or collaboration that is absent from other online learning contexts.

Dibbell does a good job of lightly covering the issues of work and play from the Puritain work ethic through to the Situationists. I know some (Marxists) resent that idea that anyone might have fun while they are working and imagine any such experience purely as an example of being duped by ideology. I’m not going there today (I spent a lifetime there one year in grad school.). That said, I think the balance of work and play, the tension between them, is familiar to pedagogy and writing.

It’s certainly familiar for my work. Let’s see if this sounds familiar. Exert labor in physically repetitive task (e.g. typing). Produce strictly virtual product (e.g., copyrighted media, intellectual property) that has almost no conventional marketplace value (i.e., you’re not going to profit from selling it in a store) but has potentially significant value in a reputation economy (i.e., your discipline) that might lead indirectly to money for you (e.g., tenure, promotion, etc.). Obviously the parallels to an RMT trader are rough, but I think one can see the similarities.

LIke a gamer, I can conceive of my job (the job of any academic) as never-ending. One can spend endless hours tinkering with courses, researching, writing, proposing, etc. Why am I writing this on a Sunday morning? Is it for profit? (I wish.) Is it for reputation? Maybe, but only if I’m feeling especially delusional this morning. Is it for play? for fun? I suppose there are worse perversions to admit to than saying that I enjoy doing this "work." Of course you say it can’t really be work unless one is getting paid for it. And no one is paying me to do this. No one at my college cares whether I do this or not. Well the sad fact is that no one really pays me to do research either. I mean now that I am tenured there is virtually no finanical incentive to continue publishing. The raises I may get from publishing are pretty negligible. I could make a lot more money if I just shelved research altogether and put that writing time into freelance or RMT like Dibbell for that matter or any number of other potentially profitable activities.

I guess that’s where professional ethics comes into the conversation, and ethics certainly belongs in a conversation about the intersections between work and play. I suppose I could say that I am obligated to do research, but I can tell you right now that little work of value will come out of such obligation. Thinking about ethics as obligation leads quickly to a politics of resentment.

No… this has to be about play, about the deconstruction of the play-work binary if you like. I know this turns the Marxist’s stomach, but maybe it shouldn’t, as in a way it’s a logic extension of Marx. Industrial, bourgeois capitalism begins in the market and the factory but then it expands into every aspect of life. Perhaps the play-work binary was a historical-ideoogical reflection of the incompletion of modernization. Play denoted activities that lay outside of capitalist exchange. They were, by definition, useless, even though they might be meaningful in other social ways. Now there are no other social ways. Now all activities are capitalist activities (even while holding other meanings as well). As a result, now we can go back and look at traditional work activities and see the potential for understanding them as play as well. Once one sets aside the demand for Taylorist efficiency, one can recognize a long history of play interspersed with work.

Anyway, I know I said I wasn’t going to go there, but, well, it was fun (I know, sick, huh?)

3 thoughts on “virtually working or working virtually

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  1. There are many Marxisms, and a useful distinction to be made between Marxist and Marxian approaches. And from Jameson, it’s quite clear that blurring the play/work distinction doesn’t turn some Marxist stomachs. But I’d take strong issue with the assertion that “all activities are capitalist activities”: see the work J. K. Gibson-Graham has been doing on the diverse economy, as well as the work of economists like Bowles and Gintis, and Duncan Ironmonger as well.

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  2. Thanks Mike. No doubt. I had a prof as a grad student who would say “I am a reader of Marx, if that makes me a marxist then I’m a marxist.” By which I assume he meant that he did not hold to any particular school of Marxist thought. Now if you want to think about a post-marxist like Tony Negri as a kind of marxist, then perhaps the blurring of play and work would be objectionable to every Marxist. However, I must say that the way I’ve usually seen this play work out. Neither Negri nor Jameson would “count” as a Marxist.
    I guess it all depends on who gets to decide who is in the club. All I know is that I don’t get to be in the club (unless may be you ask some Neo-Con undegrad), regardless of whether or not I read Marx.
    Anyway, let me clarify the statement about “capitalist activities,” as the probably wasn’t the best turn of phrase for what I was trying to say there. What I meant to suggest is that, at least in the first-world, the logic of late capitalism (to adopt more Jamesonion phrase) has spread outward from the marketplace and factory into other cultural spaces, including, as Dibbell’s book details the seemingly “ludic” spaces of video gaming.

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  3. Gotcha. Yeah, I think many Marxists of a certain era wouldn’t have recognized Negri et al. as Marxists. My CCCC presentation is actually all about trying to construct the composition classroom as a diverse economic landscape in which students and instructors engage in a diverse proliferation of nonmarket and noncapitalist forms of economic activity.

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