Class Begins In…

[Note: This post originally appeared on Terra Nova.]

October 5, 2005

Recent conversations among many of us have been sparked by Cory’s remark that “WoW is the new golf,” riffing as it does on the apparent way that WoW has become a common diversion, meeting place, and source of friendly competitiveness for academics and developers. Extending this idea leads directly to a perhaps troubling outcome: the appearance of something like country clubs in our VW future (although not in WoW necessarily). So why might this be worrisome?

In my view, WoW as the new golf, and the Country Club extenstion of the meme, point to the way in which cultural practices–like golf, drinking single-malt scotch, frequenting the opera, or online gaming–can become a marker of class. It is true that big business has already found VWs, but that has been primarily on the production side. Instead, this would be a transformation that could take place on the consumption end (the increasing blurriness of the distinction between production and consumption aside). What I’m talking about is the development of a distinctive cultural practice for elites. Pierre Bourdieu, in his book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste outlines how a social group’s incentive to distinguish itself culturally leads to the valorization of practices like those above. But some of the practices are vulnerable to cooption by non-elites. When lower classes can easily adopt the same tastes (as they aspire to move up), then the highest class simply moves on to the next thing (what was single malt scotch is now small-batch vodka, perhaps). In contrast, when the wealthy or landed can restrict access to the most expensive (in terms of overhead) diversions, like polo, golf, tennis, or foxhunting, then they become more durably a part of a class’s identity, and competence in it (what he calls cultural capital) becomes a standard and more reliable index of class standing. This explains why many otherwise relatively unskilled folks who are excellent golfers make large sums as “club professionals” and golf instructors–they’re selling a competence that has continued, over many decades, to be deperately desired by many upwardly mobile professionals.

So will VWs be a site for broad-based social elitism with all of the techniques of exclusion (economic and otherwise) that implies? The architecture of VWs can certainly restrict access. Would the technical overhead for a distinctively “ultimate” VW experience (including a custom-built engine? extremely high server-user ratios?) be sufficiently beyond the reach of the masses to make it viable? This is also a question of scale; however elitist anyone’s activities are in VWs now, in no way is the techno-elite yet the ruling class. But once a generation or two grows up thinking of excursions online not as a private diversion for an individual or a small group, but as an arena for all those who are “the right sort,” then won’t something like Country Club VWs be on the way? If so, then the current guilds, or the powers-that-be residents in certain VWs without them, are just child’s play in comparison, but crucial training nonetheless (as all child’s play is).

Perhaps, then, we worry because there is a legitimate concern that VWs, once they become truly taken-for-granted by the (non-poor) public at large, will be sites for all the ugly aspects of society that we find all-too familiar.

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