Machine elves and a changing economy

Not the McKenna version, more a shorthand to describe a new sector of industry. I was reading earlier about Dizzywood, a virtual world for children in which avatars work to repair a damaged landscape through planting trees, cleaning things up, promoting the use of non-polluting activities and presumably all carrying cotton or hemp bags with “I’m a nice bag!” in the shape of a tree written above a supermarket logo. As a result of the players’ activities, the Arbor Day Foundation is planting 15,000 trees in the real world. From the press release:

Kevin Sander, director of corporate partnerships of the Arbor Day Foundation. “The ability to see the online impact of their tree planting, and knowing it will translate into an offline one, provides children with a sense of empowerment and a purposeful experience.”

Planting 15,000 trees to reflect the committment and enthusiasm of the Dizzywood players is a wonderful thing. What interested me in particular was the implication that planting a tree in a virtual world is an action that results in a tree growing in the real world, that there was some kind of continuity between the virtual and the real. For that magical thing to take place, for action to cross between different species of world, lots needs to happen. In fact, whenever a mouseclick implies a real-world outcome, a complex system of interrelated logistical events is summoned.

Anyone who’s shopped with Amazon knows this, of course. What I’m wondering about is more a terminological or perceptual shift in the way we describe work that might happen as this sort of transition becomes more usual. Currently, the jobs and activities essential to my books arriving from the internet are categorised variously and separately: ‘postman’, ‘order picker’, ‘database administator’, or perhaps ‘distribution’, ‘cataloguing’. But if we become more and more used to thinking that virtual actions have real outcomes, and if the chain that links the action and the result becomes less and less the focus of our attention, perhaps these different categories will end up making more sense as one single category: ‘people who make invisible things real’, perhaps, or ‘ontological transformers’, or perhaps just ‘the elves’.

As an analysis of economic develpment I’m sure this is naive and ill-informed. But I think it’s important to try and work out the ways that calling old things by new names might fool us into thinking there are genuinely new things in the world, when in fact it’s just our priorities that have changed.

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