In games like Minecraft, Fortnight, and Roblox, (and many before these current favorites) kids are trading real dollars for virtual currencies to purchase virtual things. Which, in essence, is training a generation to new forms of exchanging “currency” for goods and services. And just in time.
Several months into the coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to be focused on the present and very near-term future. There are some key variables still in play in terms of economic stimulus, geopolitics, social justice and vaccine/treatment outcomes that will profoundly shape the world moving forward. One of the key areas that will likely be dramatically shifted is our usage of money and currency as we know it today.
In the pandemic, people have been nudged into paying friends and neighbors and local businesses virtually with digital wallets because they’re not shopping in stores or getting cash from ATMs. While many still trust banks, many don’t trust any aspect of the financial system, so it’s easy to see how disruption could take easy root.
There’s a plausible scenario whereby (newly required) virtual experiences (virtual and augmented realities) are accelerated as an alternative to in-person gatherings. Coupled with that is a world in which “real” experiences become much more of a luxury. Tickets to a Rolling Stones concert already cost hundreds or thousands of dollars when they’re selling 60,000 tightly packed seats a night. Imagine if they can only sell 2,500 in that same stadium for small, distanced, enclosed pods.
Or people can watch in the comfort of their living rooms for $50. It won’t be the same as “being there,” but for most, it will be all they can afford. They’ll be able to “upgrade” that experience and pay for more camera angles or project their face onto one of the backup singers. Maybe they’re paying for that with a credit card, but maybe they’re earning virtual currencies by watching Mick and Keith videos and sharing their pics on social media or visiting sponsor and partner websites.
Think that’s crazy? Ask your kids if they saw the Weeknd concert on TikTok and ask yourself how it’s any different.
In this issue of What the Future, one clear arc emerges. Currencies might not always be controlled by central, national banks. They might be based on crypto computing, especially if the user experience improves. People who have historically been disenfranchised by traditional financial services can use new digital experiences to get access to wealth-building and savings tools that have been inaccessible. And finally, a true sharing economy with goods and services held in common for the good of real and virtual communities could emerge, based on cooperation more than it does with capitalism. Many might view that world as a hopeful one.
The scary flipside, of course, is even further wealth bifurcation where real-world experiences become the domain of the elites with vast real-world holdings and the rest of us retreat into our virtual spaces performing some new form of labor to earn virtual currency and pay off our virtual experiences.
We’ll look at the opinions and actions of today with an eye toward which of these futures or which portions of them to prepare for. Real or virtual, hard cash or crypto coins, fiat currency or Robux, money will always be power. The question is, how much of that is shifting, in what directions and how quickly?