Mana Capitalism

What does capitalism look like when everything is countable?

Stuart Mills
Jun 3 · 6 min read

Simulations

It is almost a pre-requisite of any strategy game to include some sort of mana system. Mana itself is a token term; a catch-all replacement for the less eloquent phrase, “amount of stuff.” In the realm of videogames, gold coins are a classic type of mana, as well as magicka, gems, hearts and even, fittingly, lives.

Mana is just an amount of stuff, so much so one might argue that all things can be reduced to the concept of mana. Money is surely mana, as is reputation (see, for example, the excellent videogame Prison Architect if you don’t believe me). Politicians have mana first in terms of poll numbers, then votes, and then seats. Businesses have mana — we call it capital.

To be sure, it is not necessarily helpful to trivially reduce every component of the world to some unit of account, and the absurdity of doing such is — perhaps — compounded by the decision as made here to name this universal unit of account after a concept born from videogames. But, only perhaps. Videogames are, Baudrillard aside, simulated worlds which from a behavioural position, one should concede, can tell us an awful lot about the activities of people within the non-simulated realm.

Play/Work/Level-up/…

The importance of mana in a strategy game is it is an expendable resource (which grants a player agency) which may be used now or in the future (it is stable; expenditure is free from coercion) with the future being uncertain (or at least probabilistic). Strategy, on the most basic level, comes from selecting the most opportune moments to spend mana.

How might mana be acquired? That depends on the structure of the game. Perhaps a friendly character requires some assistance, and so one goes off and performs an innocuous task in exchange for love, adoration and reward; perhaps mana is lay strewn on the ground and requires one simply run around and collect it; perhaps one is fortunate enough to be given a set amount of mana over time, and if one chooses they need only wait for the counter to reach a sufficient quantity.

These are all economic systems, with real-world parallels. The friendly character becomes the capitalist boss and we their employee; the strewn coins or gems or whatever are arbitrage opportunities or — depending on one’s cynicism for such things — rent-seeking; the passive accumulation approach is a form of universal basic income.

The point of drawing these parallels is not to attack videogames as being inherently capitalist or bourgeois, nor is it to make some seemingly clever but really rather banal comparison between our tendency to, ‘play the game,’ and the literal videogames that can be played. I’m sure someone has done that before, and it’s hardly compelling enough to warrant a substantial amount of time be spent lingering on it.

Rather, it is more productive to consider the consequences of our reflected reality; to see the cynical game we play not cynically, but as a game. Money or capital or, in our contemporary world, data, become disenfranchised when thought about not as those things which render them distinct, but as those things which render them similar. They are all countable; they are all mana.

When Do We Stop Counting?

It is immediately obvious — and could come to fill a great many pages if one cared to — that it is important in our economy to keep a track of money and capital. In fact, the belief that we are, individually and nationally, is taken as a given in all economics. But we don’t count perfectly: sometimes we only count at the end of the day, or the end of the week; often debts are only settled after the service has been provided; most of the time, the true value of any action or investment only becomes realised later; and given there are so many people, each only counting a small amount of everything, it might be hard to reconcile all these values, to not count things twice, and to get agreement amongst all counters.

Blockchain technology and distributed ledgers aim to solve many of these problems. Cryptocurrencies are the most famous utiliser of this technology: with a cryptocurrency blockchain, we always know how much money is available and how much could be available, rather than counting at arbitrary points in time; smart contacts can reduce the time difference between services provided and payments received to near zero, and could be vastly more flexible in response to unexpected changes in, say, investment returns; finally, the distribution of ledgers should resolve the issue of who is counting, what is counted, and whose count is correct.

This is the big selling point of blockchain. For capital, we can create cryptocurrencies which offer these benefits and more, but in theory, we could establish a blockchain for anything. For those enamoured with the concept of counting, this is a wonderful thing. For many others, this is a point of ultimate reduction, and for a few, the dawning of a nightmarish data-scape.

Into the Datascape

The concept of datascape as used here is — to my knowledge — a novel one, and one that is designed to draw parallels with the concepts of data-streams, neuro-computers and other cybernetic concepts which live in Gibson’s cyberpunk world. Cyberpunk is useful here for two reasons: firstly, as a philosophical position which challenges our definition of humanity when intruded or intermingled with technology; secondly, for the setting, one rife with alienation and — I would suggest — annihilation within a not-yet-realised-but-forever-on-the-horizon form of (late-stage?) capitalism.

The datascape is a natural extension of the cyberpunk aesthetic but should not be considered only aesthetic. The datascape is a world where everything is counted and recorded. Each like on Facebook contributes to our Facebook influencer score (influencers are, I think, a fantastic example of the proto-data-scape, though I will not discuss this here); each purchase from a given retailer contributes to our score for that retailer, which in turn accumulates benefits to us; each mile or metre driven contributes to our carbon emission score, which is charged to us individually in real-time.

This is Mana Capitalism, a form of capitalism where our ability to reliably and verifiably quantify each component of our daily lives (the datascape) leads to the creation of numerous types of capital each of which act on us much like money-capital does today. Where we have credit scores today, tomorrow we may have social media scores (see social credit), carbon scores, loyalty scores (loyalty cards cum blockchain, perhaps?) and so on.

Late-late-stage Capitalism

Such a world is alienating in its insatiable desire to render each of us as individuals, but individuals in the most cyberpunk of senses, as datapoints, or strings of data or a collection of blockchains (this is not hyperbole; a core issue in big data presently in one of anonymity as people are too easily identified from relatively few datapoints). For some of a more liberal or libertarian persuasion such a world does not sound so awful, for personal responsibility is elevated above all else. And for those who find almost blind faith in markets, such a world is their nirvana, as mana capitalism necessarily begets the marketisation of everything.

For those not quite of the libertarian, market-loving persuasion, such a world is terrifying. The coercive forces of capital which govern our lives in the form of wage-labour multiply under mana capitalism. In a twisted re-imaging of Marx’s parable, it is not that we can be a worker or a social media user, rather it is we must be both (see, for example, insurance companies using social media profiles to adjust the premiums of customers). In this sense, our lives become more restrictive as we balance the balances of not one mana account (capital) but several.

The linking of mana only compounds the restrictiveness of it all. While the right talk of the marketplace of ideas sincerely, in a mana capitalist society where one’s social media score is linked to their credit score, subversive ideas online become poison which may harm prospects, all while those ideas remain, ‘uncensored,’ in the name of freedom (the irony presently is it is the supposedly communist country of China which is developing a social credit score). Parallels in today’s world already exist as stories abound of people losing their jobs due to their online activities.

Quantified World

The endless drive for data raises profound questions of our relation to data, but all too often conversations about the role of quantification in capitalism revolve around the question of how capitalism appropriates our data within today’s capitalist nexus, rather than how data becomes capitalism itself.

We are now building the greatest counting system ever devised, what in time will become a datascape capable of mimicking the real-world. The modes of operation that were previously the reserve of videogames and simulations will ebb into daily life. The result will be a cyberpunk aesthetic; mana capitalism.

Stuart Mills

Written by

Behavioural Economist, PhD researcher. Rational actor on the weekends. twitter.com/stuart_mmills

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