On the margins

I don’t expect that my last post, in which I proposed that the value of virtual objects is effectively zero, will have caused a great deal of consternation in the SL commercial community, since I’m guessing that not many of them are overly impressed by Marxist economic analysis.

What if we take a look at the question from a more capitalism-friendly economic viewpoint? In general, non-Marxist analysis tends to reject the idea that commodities have intrinsic value (as is proposed by the labour theory of value) in favour of a more subjective formulation; the exchange-value of an object is what it will fetch in a free market, which in turn is dependent on the level of demand and supply.

This kind of theory is popular in financial circles, since it implies that value can be generated purely by the process of exchange, and that bankers and their ilk are actually wealth-creators, rather than parasites who have grown fat on the the toil of the labouring classes. (Though we’ve been hearing less of such triumphalist talk recently).

That aside, does a supply/demand model of value give us hope that Second Life commerce can be viable in the long-term? Sadly, no. The problem lies in the concept of marginal value. According to the theory, exchange-value is determined dynamically by the balance between the prospective buyer’s desire for an item and the level of supply. That desire is not constant though – it decreases as the buyer’s stock of an object increases. A man who has no oranges might be willing to buy them for a dollar each, but by the time he has bought ten he will probably be thinking of spending his next dollar on something else, though he may be persuaded to buy another if the price drops. The marginal value of an item is what a customer is willing to pay to get one more than he has already, and always trends towards zero. It may even go into negative territory if there is a cost associated with having too many items, such as storage charges.

The marginal value of most real-world items is maintained by their perishable nature. In Second Life though items last forever, so as residents age, and accumulate more stuff, their willingness to buy new things tends to decline. Even the most fanatical fashion-victims will eventually have enough clothes, shoes, or whatever, and retailers will have to drop their prices to tempt them into further purchases.

New avatars will still need to buy things of course, but since the percentage of people trying SL who go on to become long-term residents is quite small, it seems likely that the demographic will gradually mature, and the economy will stagnate. (There will be a subsection of the population for whom shopping is an end in itself, and for them the marginal value of new items will remain consistent, but I don’t think there are enough of them to maintain a growing economy).

So there you have it. Communists and Capitalists agree: the Second Life economy is doomed. People should stop wasting time trying to run businesses that have no future, and concentrate on exploiting the real potential of virtual worlds; the chance to create new kinds of art and entertainment, and to experience the myriad different forms of interaction that the grid gives us access to.

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