The Emperor Fertilizes His Virtual Crops While Rome Burns

In case you haven’t noticed, the technology world is on a bit of an uptick at the moment. Valuations of tech companies are soaring. Programmers are in fierce demand. Venture capital money is frothing like a Tea Partier at a “How Barack Obama Was Raised By A Family Of Muslim Kenyan Terrorist Death Panel Socialist Wolves” book signing.

Life in Silicon Valley is good. Some have dared suggest this could be the beginning of a bubble, but the several hundred billionaires who own 99.9 per cent of the country’s wealth have been quick to assure us this isn’t the case. So it must be true. And for a digital guy like me you’d think I’d be kissing every Groupon and crossing myself every time I answer a question on Quora. But there’s one nagging doubt that exists at the back of my mind. While our virtual world of fake farms and 1970s-filtered shared photographs might be great, the actual world – i.e. the one we live in – is slowly going down the pan. And that’s a problem.


In Virtualville life is simply fantastic for all the main players. Companies like Zynga have grown revenues in excess of $1bn by giving lazy Americans the ability to continue being lazy, via its suite of “…ville” games (think Farmville, Cityville). While wildly successful, these games are the digital equivalent of intentionally pissing yourself on the couch because you can’t be bothered to get up and go to the bathroom. Deep down you know it’s wrong, but it’s just too easy – and besides, if you do it enough times you simply get to a point where you don’t care anymore.

In Farmville all the animals are cute, all the crops are green and you can progress through the game by simply clicking repeatedly with your index finger while shoehorning a Cinn-a-Bon into your mouth with your spare hand. Oh what a wonderful (virtual) world.

Now imagine if Zynga created a game that was actually based on real life. Let’s call it Shitsville for now. In Shitsville one tenth of the population would be out of work and over 50 per cent of the population would be caught in an ever increasing spiral of debt. It doesn’t matter how many virtual coins or “Likes” you get, in Shitsville the bridges and roads keep falling to pieces and there’s no way to rebuild them. The town you run starts off with a $100 billion deficit that it has no hope of closing, all of your citizens have bubonic plague because none of them can afford health insurance premiums and college kids are leaving with degrees that are worth a fraction of the six figure sum they owe the student loan company.

There’s no question that the United States is the world leader when it comes to digital and technology innovation. And that’s something the country should be proud of. But while we’re creating a world connected by servers and switches, it would also be nice to think that somebody is looking out for the part of everyday life that kicks in when the laptop closes. Transportation, public utilities, infrastructure – things that almost every other country in the world is pouring cash into with alarming speed. Call me selfish, but I’d trade a Foursquare check-in for the ability to complete a smooth airport check-in any day of the week. But sadly we’re becoming experts at the former, and ignorant of the latter.

Despite the fact that Wall Street continues to boom and share prices continue to rise, the real economy for ordinary Americans is a mess. Basic necessities (like food and gas) are rising dramatically, job creation is stagnant at best and every town, state and municipality in the country seems to be swamped in debt. Yet despite this backdrop all the tech blogs read like an 80’s feel good movie.

Virtual items, worlds and products are all inherently interesting but ultimately they don’t actually exist and thus their real value is zero. Yet more and more of our best and brightest minds seem to be getting sucked into a vortex – whether it be creating exotic financial products on Wall Street or non-existent worlds in a social game – where they’re ultimately not producing anything of real value.

So America – I don’t have a problem with you fertilizing your virtual crops once in a while. But it’d be really helpful if we didn’t lose sight of those very real potholes that need to be fixed on the highways, and the fact that my very real dollar bills are buying me less and less merchandise every time I go to the store.

Read more from Jonathan Hills at The Spinning Hamster