Virtualization Makes Things Weird

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Ah, for the simple days, when a taxi was a taxi, and my video games weren’t helping terrorists behind my back.

We’ve begun to virtualize many parts of the economy. And things are getting weird as a result.

Take the case of these new peer-to-peer taxi services popping up. It’s a cool idea, for sure. But we also agree that regulations are usually a Good Thing, providing they’re used to protect consumers instead of simply raising the barrier to entry of local business (see: Why It’s Illegal to Braid Hair Without a License).

But how do you regulate a virtualized taxi livery? A company that provdes taxi-like services without actually owning cars or employing drivers? They just play switchboard for anyone who wants to sign up.

There’s a game in Japan called Pachinko. It’s also weird. I can’t figure it out, despite having spent a good hour trying in Kyoto this summer. Pachinko involves shooting BB-gun sized metal balls into a Galton Box of sorts, in which you receive points for certain landing positions. As best as I can tell, the configuration of the game creates a calculable expected return for every possible angle from which you shoot these balls. This means the game boils down to (A) guessing what these expected payouts are and (B) holding your wrist at precisely the angle that achieves them.

Anyway, the point about Pachinko is, it’s gambling. It’s a billion dollar business. Except for a small problem: you can’t gamble in Japan. To avoid the prohibition, they’ve taken Chuck-E-Cheese style gaming to the next step.

  1. You give Pachinko money
  2. Pachinko gives you points
  3. Points can be redeemed for toys, and (here’s the kicker)
  4. Coincidentally, next door is a shop that purchases toys for money

It comes full circle.

Anti-gambling law avoided. Gamblers, proceed.

Virtualization is weird.

One might argue that the financial crash of 2008 was a result of the same song-and-dance. I can’t figure out how to concisely make the proper allusions here, but The Big Short is an excellent read if you’re interested.

I have some friends who are lawyers. They tell me the interesting thing about the law is that every case is a story, and the job of the court is to interpret that story in the context of existing law and precedent. Initially this frustrated me. Doesn’t this guarantee inconsistent outcomes? Can’t we just have a giant lookup table?

  • Section 3.4.5: An Eye.
  • Section 3.4.6: A Tooth.

But, seeing how fast things change, and how strange things get when companies virtualize our daily activities past the point where the law, as written, can address them…well, it makes me glad the courtroom involves stories, instead of a simple dictionary look-up.