If a quality attribute is an adjective describing something, and a virtual good is something that does not occupy a physical space, then what kind of quality attributes could be used to describe a virtual good?
The most common physical goods (I.e. found in the real world; found in meatspace) that most humans come into daily contact with are clothing and water. Many come into contact with the floor of their shelter and experience walls and a roof. Not enough humans come into contact with enough protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Physical goods are physical, and we experience them all the time. Many humans don’t ever encounter any virtual goods.
Virtual goods aren’t physical. These words, the ones you are reading now in this blog medium, don’t exist physically. Neither does the software I use to publish and distribute these words, or the software you are using to read them. A subscription based software as a service application does not exist physically. Neither do the rights to those virtual goods. The skins, tools, avatars, swords, shields, guns and whatever can be imagined inside of a video game aren’t physically real. Nor, for that matter, is software, an app, nor cryptocurrency, nor your Electronic Health Records, nor a NFT.
It’s interesting to think about quality attributes associated with a physical good and associate them with a virtual good. Cold water. Cold NFT. A soft shirt. A soft app. A fragrant perfume. A fragrant avatar. Many quality attributes don’t transfer from the physical world. Some do. A secure lockbox. A secure electronic health record. A fast car. A fast transfer. An easy to use toaster. An easy to use app.
Usability is among the most important quality attribute for virtual software goods. Prior to point and click Graphical User Interfaces, one had to use the Command Line Interface to engage with a computer. The Command Line Interface is difficult to use because, on its own, it’s just a cursor blinking at you, giving you absolutely no clue what to do with it and what to type. The Command Line Interface really punishes those who don’t know how to ask for help. Point and click was a breakthrough because it gave you a hint at what to do. People still had to learn how to use a mouse. Minesweeper and Solitaire were instructive. It was a skill that had to be learned. Still, it was easier than touch typing memorized commands. Later, a team invented a substitute for the mouse and now many people just use their finger to point and tap on things. That wasn’t easy to invent. The perspective formed by the position of your head, relative to your finger tip, relative to your finger tip, creates a problem that has to be compensated for. Sometimes simplicity requires a lot of complexity. Each generation of Human Computer Interface, from soldering metal to using your finger to poke at a glass screen, represents improvements in usability, and lowers the barrier to entry.
Usability is a key barrier that prevents a lot of people from using information technology. The entrepreneurial impulse is to lower the barriers. Other barriers persist in the realm of virtual goods as well – security, reliability, and speed represent barriers in different contexts. In order to open the opportunity for more people to experience a virtual good, those barriers have to come down first. Most new technologies are hard to use.
A lot of investment is going into creating new virtual goods with useful quality attributes. Like any technology, they’re going to change us in unexpected ways. Take, for instance, what the ember did for, and to, us. We might have came upon an ember in the wake of a wildfire. It was a pretty brave ancestor that was curious enough to engage that ember. The same animals that weren’t afraid to hunt us were afraid of fire. Somebody had to suspend their fear of it long enough to engage with it. Somebody figured out how to contain an ember, they could move it, feed it, and grow it. Fire is just an unreasonably effective physical good. They used fire to stay safe from predators, to keep warm at night, and to pre-digest food. It changed our physiology. First we cooked combustibles and then we cooked food. That act of pre-digestion helped our biochemistry. We were outsourcing some of the energy we were using for digestion out of our bodies. It changed us. Later we cooked the rocks around the fire. And we haven’t stopped cooking rocks. Most of the infrastructure we use is cooked rocks. We even cook some rock, water, and air in order to create fertilizer for food. We cook everything. Fire changed our DNA and (the nitrogen we split from the air you breathe and is smeared on fields) is in our DNA. Embers are a powerful technological platform.
As are virtual goods. On the grandest of scales, it’s almost as hard to predict the ways that virtual goods will change humans today as it was for those apes on the savanna to predict how embers would change them. On the smallest of scales, many virtual goods lack the quality attributes that are necessary to cause huge changes. There are non-trivial challenges with the creation, distribution, and utilization of virtual goods.
In terms of creation, consider the spectrum of no-code, low-code, and code. No-code interfaces are easy to use because the options are laid out in point and click ways, and their consequences are immediately apparent. The image filter, the animation and the voice overlay are good examples. Low-code interfaces enable more automation and customization, yet are harder to use because they require the user to engage with the keyboard to enter commands in a very specific order, following very specific rules. Code interfaces require the user to not only know which words to use and in which sequence, but also have the intuition about how to compose paragraphs and stories, and how those stories relate other stories. The difference between a no-code experience and a code experience in terms of creativity is akin to making a hand gesture to writing The Silo Series. Some could make the argument that most video and image editing software enables just as much creativity as a team of software engineers composing a video game, but then I’d have to point out that one is a linear medium and one is an interactive.
Consider the different perspectives about how virtual goods should be distributed. I recently wrote a lot about decentralization and meritocracy – about the perception that the decisions of a few, given their control over distribution channels, generate real or perceived injustices. Many people believe that they are entitled to 100% reach, 100% of the time. A disequilibrium exists between those that (over-)produce content relative to the availability of attention that people are willing to allocate. Some people are prolific producers and poor editors. Most social platforms preserve aggregate audience attention by turning down the effective frequency of over-producers. This causes quite a bit of frustration amongst many producers. There’s no incentive for the social network to give a hint and even less incentive for a producer to take it. Social networks are just the latest incarnation of this market-agent-market dynamic. The virtualization of agents will continue to evolve new quality attributes like transparency and possibly, some variant of fairness. How would more fairness change us?
How might people use virtual goods? Will they use them to be happier or will it make them sadder? Will people optimize their own well-being? What new experiences will people create for themselves and each other?
Could virtual goods help humanity solve the problems with the generation of physical goods?
Because all sorts of attributes can be assigned to virtual goods, it’s good to be deliberate about the ones we want.