Introduction: How to Handcraft an Achingly Self-Referential Virtual Commodity Fetish Object (For Fun and Profit!)

In this easy-to-follow seven-step Instructable, you will learn how to turn a weightless virtual commodity into a lovingly handmade piece of artisanal craftwork fated to collapse into its own meta-indexical core like the semiotic black hole it is. This project requires you to handle sharp implements, fast-bonding adhesives, and volatile distinctions between the real and the symbolic. It should not be attempted without professional legal guidance and a basic understanding of social-constructionist theories of reality.

  • one literary property (written but not owned by you)
  • one arguably enforceable end-user license agreement (can be custom-ordered from an intellectual-property law firm or cribbed from software packaging and/or online terms-of-service agreements)
  • one Second Life user account
  • one United States Federal Reserve note or other tangible piece of currency (optional)
  • basic bookbinding materials (available at most art-supply stores)

  • 10 hours minimum for assembly
  • 12 hours for drying
  • 2-3 years prep time.

Step 1: Write and Publish a Book

The first step is to become a published author. Easy, right? Not so fast. Sure, today's robust DIY media landscape -- with its blogs, bittorrents, print-on-demand sites, and other powerful textcasting tools -- has made it so anyone with a faint pulse and the patience to line up 40,000 words of recognizable English can publish a book. But remember: Your final goal isn't a book. It's an achingly self-referential handcrafted virtual commodity fetish object. A published book will get you started in that direction, but if you want to make it all the way to the goal line, you can't start with just any published book.

Most importantly, it can't be a self-published book. Don't get me wrong: I've done my share of self-publishing, and I'm all for it. Truly, there is nothing like the clean-all-over feeling of creative autonomy you get from controlling the means of your own intellectual production. But clean-all-over is not what this project is about. Not-quite-right; sort-of-questionable; deeply-yet-elusively-alienating -- that's more the vibe you're going for here, and for that sort of thing, you really can't beat the traditional publishing arrangement.

If you've ever been party to one, you know what I'm talking about. But if this will be your first time signing with a commercial publisher, I want you to close your eyes now and picture it: Publication day. Thousands of books going out into the world with your name in big type on the cover. The name says the work inside is yours, and so does all the effort you put into it. You wrote it. You said it. And now, according to copyright law, nobody else can say it again. Only here's the catch: Neither can you. Because in order to get all those words of yours out into the great wide marketplace of ideas, you signed away your exclusive right to to ever write them down in the exact same order again -- your copyright. The publisher owns those words now, and strictly speaking you aren't allowed to communicate them to another person again without the publisher's consent.

Step 1, in other words, requires you to enter into a relationship that on close examination turns out to be among the most perverse in modern commerce. But trust me, you won't regret it: In the end, this very perversity is what's going to give your handcrafted virtual commodity fetish object that hauntingly pallid glow of the uncanny that marks it as a work of true craftsmanship. Plus, keep in mind some authors have actually made serious money with this traditional-publishing stuff. You could be a winner!

One other thing: This is an achingly self-referential virtual commodity fetish object you're making, don't forget, so you'll want to choose the book's subject matter carefully. And sure, I know what you're thinking: Why, right? Aren't intellectual properties themselves so peculiarly virtual, commodified, and fetishistic by their very nature that a virtual commodity fetish object made out of a copyrighted book -- no matter what the subject -- is pretty much self-referential by definition? Well: yes. But you know what? There's self-referentiality and there's aching self-referentiality, and what you really need to ask yourself is this: At the end of the project, when you're holding the final product in your hands for that one last once-over, will you honestly be satisfied if its self-referentiality is anything less than almost literally throbbing like a bee-stung fingertip? If the answer is no, then there's no cutting corners: You will want to build your virtual commodity fetish object from a book about virtual commodity fetish objects.

Fortunately, that's one topic book publishers just can't seem to get enough of. For this walk-through, we'll be using my own book on the subject -- Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. Released in 2006 by mainstream trade publishers Basic Books (a member of the Perseus Books group) Play Money is a nonfiction book about the toy economies of online virtual worlds and their increasing spillover into the real global economy, but that's just one way to get at the topic. Nonfiction not your style? Hey, plenty of science-fiction writers, from William Gibson to Neal Stephenson to Cory Doctorow, have published novels and stories about virtual worlds as annexes and/or allegories of contemporary capitalism -- and so can you! Trade publishing too low-brow for you? Steal a page from Mr. Commodity Fetishism himself, Karl Marx (or any of the long line of critical thinkers who have worked that same patch of Marxian turf, from Georg Lukacs to Guy Debord to Jean Baudrillard), and scribble up a wad of social theory any academic publisher would kill to get the rights to.

The possibilities are endless. Let your imagination run wild, then go out and get yourself a book contract. It may take as little as two years from proposal to publication, it might take as long as ten, and either way, it will sometimes feel like it's taking forever. But that's when you'll need to remind yourself what getting that book shipped is all about: Moving on to step 2!

I'll wait.

Step 2: Create a Virtual Version of the Book

Congratulations, you're published. Now it's time to get crafting again!

In the next two steps you'll be turning what is already an essentially virtual commodity -- the literary property you wrote and sold to your publisher -- into an actually virtual commodity. For this, you'll need access to an actual virtual world, and in particular, you'll need a virtual world you can actually build your own custom-spec'd virtual objects in. Which, yeah, pretty much means Second Life. So go on, get over it and get it over with: You will have to find a new way to prove how cool you are besides being the last kid on the block who refuses to sign up for their very own walking, talking, 3D-graphical Second Life "avatar" (free of charge!).

Done? All right: you're a "resident" of Second Life now. What next? Two options. One: you can devote the next 100 hours or so to learning enough of Second Life's maddeningly proprietary object-scripting language to create a buggy, semi-legible virtual version of your book. Or two: you can pay ace Second Life book coder Falk Bergmann a very reasonable amount of Linden dollars to turn your book into a handsome, fully functional work of object-scripting genius.

Tell him I sent you.

Oh, and kids, very important: don't forget to get your publisher's permission before you get started on this step! Virtual or not, your Second Life book is a copy of your real-life book, and unless your publisher authorizes you to make it, you are skating on thin ice, civil-and/or-criminal-liability-wise.

Step 3: Market the Virtual Version of the Book

Now, here's where you start getting hands-on with that magic moment that makes the modern world go around: The transformation of a mere object into the radiant thing of wonder we call a commodity.

If you've never done this before, don't worry. It's actually pretty easy. There's only one simple ingredient you have to add to any object to turn it into a commodity: marketing. Yep: multimillion-dollar product launch or one-day eBay auction, all you really need to do is stick a price on your object, wave it around in front of some potential buyers (a/k/a "the market"), and you're done. Turning a virtual object into a virtual commodity isn't any different, except for one detail: The price you put on your object will be in a virtual currency -- like Second Life's Linden dollars -- rather than real-world money like U.S. dollars or euros.

The catch here, of course, is that "your object" isn't actually, as you'll recall, your object. No one but your publisher is authorized to distribute your book, so before you start trying to sell it in Second Life, you will once again need to get their permission.

Don't sweat this part either, though. Second Life may not be the publicity magnet it was for a while there, but free exposure is free exposure, and as long as the publisher is looking to promote your book about virtual commodities, they're not going to pass up a chance to claim it's been transformed into a virtual commodity itself.

If you really want to hook them, don't even suggest that this is purely a promotional stunt -- let them assume that themselves. Be businesslike about how much you expect to generate in virtual sales, and inquire earnestly about how to remit them their virtual revenues. You can even offer to convert their Linden dollars into "real" money for them (don't forget the quote marks). They'll love it. They will love how authentically immersed in this whole crazy scene you are. They will chuckle and give you a big fat green light and, in all likelihood, tell you to keep the Linden dollars too. Believe me.

From there it just gets easier. Second Life is lousy with retail outlets. Pick one or pick a few. Do an in-world search on Second Life bookstore owners and partner with them to sell your book. Or buy some Second Life land and build a bookstore of your own. Or register at a Second Life commerce site like SLExchange and sell straight to the Web.

Then push your chair back, roll your sleeves up, and clear yourself a nice big workspace on your kitchen table. It's time to leave the virtual world behind and move on to step 4!

Step 4: Create a Lovingly Hand-bound Copy of the Book

In this step you're going to print out your entire book in 4-sheet signature format then lovingly hand-fold and hand-stitch the signatures into a single archival-quality volume complete with hand-made, ornamental hard cover.

Seriously, that's the whole step. (You thought this was going to be the hard part?)

Naturally I won't insult your crafting prowess by explaining how to make a hand-bound hardcover book from scratch. (There are other Instructables on that, if you really need the refresher.) But given the unique requirements of the project generally, there are a couple tips you might want to keep in mind as you tackle step 4:

1. If there's some part of "lovingly" you don't understand, please ask
I can't stress this enough: The effect you're going for here is what's known in the business as "foregrounding the materiality of the signifier" -- so for heaven's sake go for it! Your hand-crafted book shouldn't just look hand-crafted -- it should radiate hand-craftedness the way a fresh-baked country biscuit radiates oven warmth. It should reflect your painstaking attention the way a baby's smile reflects its mother's tender care. At the same time, though, and for the same reasons, it should also not turn out so perfect as to be indistinguishable from a machine-made book. Correct any glaring errors as you go, but if a page tears slightly or a bit of glue oozes out from behind the spine or (God forbid) you prick a finger on the binding needle and streak the cover cloth with a drop of your own red blood, let these imperfections stand as traces of the unfakeably human hand that shaped the book. (Or fake them, as necessary.)

2. Nothing says "pure abstracted market capital dancing in the paradoxical embrace of its own inevitably concrete self-representation" like legal-tender origami
The cover ornament is up to you, and if you can think of anything that conveys the essence of this project better than a single U.S. dollar bill artfully accordion-pleated and stitch-fastened to the cover in an assertively decorative truncation of its own iconic image, hey, knock yourself out. But you can't, can you? And there's no shame in that.

Step 5: Repeat Step 4, Ad Libitum

Now go ahead and make some copies -- but don't overdo it! It's easy to make too many and hard to know when to stop, but here's the trick:

First, pick up that first hand-made book of yours and give it a good long look. See that halo of irreducible authenticity emanating from its every stitch and surface? This is what's sometimes referred to as "the authority of the object," or more handily, its "aura." Now, as you begin making more of the books, keep a close eye on your growing stack and watch what happens to the aura. It will start to fade. And the moment you find yourself unsure it's still there (but before you're certain it's gone), stop copying!

The idea here is not to destroy the aura but to distress it, scuffing away a bit of glow with each reproduction until a spectral, melancholy flicker is all that remains. Five or six copies ought to do it.

Oh, and give yourself a gold star if you've thought to ask yourself the following excellent question: If it was so important to get the publisher's permission to make virtual copies of your book, why don't we need permission to make these hard copies as well?

Proceed to step 6 for the answer.

Step 6: ??? (the Miracle of the EULA)

All right now: if you're still wondering when we get to the hard part, you can stop. We're there. This is it. This is the step upon which the entire project balances, the step that gives all steps before and after it their reason for being. The mother of steps: step 6.

Step 6 is where you must finally gather all the conceptual loose ends generated by your various book-making efforts thus far and tie them together in a single, ornate bow. You must connect the peculiarities of both the commercial and the virtual versions of your book (the queer bargain you entered into to get it published in the first place; the ambiguities, both ontological and economic, that cloud its existence in Second Life) to those of the hand-crafted version -- and you must do it in such a way that these final books, the books you have just spent so many hours folding, stitching, and gluing into being, now literally vanish in an instant.

A tall order, for sure, but fortunately there's a tool that can cut it down to size -- a powerful piece of legal technology that nowadays makes all manner of dematerializations, transubstantiations, and related modern miracles a snap for average citizens and corporate "persons" alike. It's called a shrink-wrap end-user license, or EULA, and what you're actually going to do in this step, finally, is write one for your hand-made books and wrap them it.

Properly crafted and applied, this EULA will immediately cause the books to cease to exist as books. Instead, by the EULA's magical decree, they will now be tokens of exchange and nothing more, redeemable only for Second Life copies of your book and thus, in a sense, more virtual than the virtual objects they now represent. Not being books, of course, they are also now exempt from the terms of your book contract, a twist that you can think of as either a trenchant comment on contemporary intellectual-property relations or a way to cut your publisher out of any potential unbook revenues or both. But perhaps most important, your shrink-wrapped object, reduced by the EULA to standing as proxy for a book that is in essence the "same" book it would be if it were still, in fact, a book, will now acquire one final layer of self-referentiality that if it isn't aching, well, it's definitely gotta hurt.

How the EULA does all this, exactly, is up to you. But if you want a model to work from, here's the one I wrote for my own project, cobbled together from scraps of existing product licenses (Microsoft Office, Second Life, etc.) and a few creative but perhaps not entirely ungrounded legal gambits of my own. Take what you like, but by all means get a real attorney's opinion before you try this at home:


The following agreement describes the terms on which Julian Dibbell ("the Author") licenses you to use copy number ........ ("the Book") of the limited-run hand-bound edition of his book "Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot" ("Play Money"). By using the Book in any way (including, but not limited to, touching it, looking at it, displaying it, lending it, and keeping it in your home, office, safe-deposit box, gym locker, or any other place to which you have exclusive access), you indicate your acceptance of this agreement in its entirety. If you do not accept the agreement or any of its terms, do not use the Book. Instead, return it to the person or organization from which you acquired it for a refund or credit. If you cannot obtain a refund there, contact the Author ( for information about his refund policies.

1. Description of the Book.

The Book is one of no more than 5 (five) special-edition copies of "Play Money."It contains the full text of "Play Money" as originally published in the 2006 hardcover edition. The text is inkjet-printed on 84 sheets of text-weight paper, hand-folded into 21 signatures, stitched together with linen thread, reinforced with decorative endpages, and cased in a cover constructed of cardboard, bookcloth, linen thread, text-weight paper hand-printed with a rubber stamp, and one U.S. dollar bill. Except for the ink-jet printer, no machinery was used in the making of the Book, and all work was done by the Author, with no physical assistance from any person.

2. The Book is not a book.

The Book is a financial instrument. Specifically, it is a bearer note granting title to one of 5 (five) special-edition virtual copies of "Play Money" located in the online environment Second Life. You may redeem the Book by delivering it in person to the Author. Upon redemption, and subject to the Author's confirmation of the Book's authenticity, the Author will cause his Second Life avatar to deliver the virtual book to whichever Second Life avatar you designate as recipient. The Author warrants the Book's fitness for this purpose and for no other, whether aesthetic, intellectual, or practical. All details of the Book's construction, including its printed contents, are intended solely as mechanisms of authentication, for the purpose of confirming its validity as proof of title.

3. The Book does not belong to you.

The Book is licensed, not sold. This agreement only gives you some rights to use the Book. The Author reserves all other rights. Unless applicable law gives you more rights despite this limitation, you may use the Book only as expressly permitted in this agreement.

4. You may not read the Book.

The exclusive right to publish, reproduce and distribute "Play Money" is held by Basic Books publishers, a member of Perseus Books LLC. Basic Books has granted the Author permission to copy and distribute "Play Money" in Second Life but nowhere else. You acknowledge and agree, therefore, that the paper copy printed out for inclusion in the Book was made by the Author as a personal copy, for his use only, as permitted under the fair-use doctrine of United States copyright law. You may not read it.

Step 7: Profit!

It's Miller time! Your achingly self-referential virtual commodity fetish object is shrink-wrapped and ready to ship. In just a moment you'll be putting your feet up on the table and watching the revenues roll in.

Of course, you'll first have to sort out who, approximately, will be supplying those revenues, but it turns out that's an easy one. In the 47 years since Italian artist Piero Manzoni managed to sell -- as art works -- ninety 1-oz. tins of his own shit priced at the worth of their weight in gold, the conceptual art market has absorbed thousands of pointedly useless objects framed as meditations on the fraught confluence of value, institutions, and creative expression, and it definitely has room for the five or six you'll be peddling.

Didn't know you were a conceptual artist, huh? Well, you are now -- at least for as long as it takes to talk your way into the nearest gallery or art fair, which shouldn't be too hard. Personally, I got lucky and sold the first three copies from my five-copy hand-bound Play Money edition to the eager curator of a Belgianartsfestival without ever having to establish my (nonexistent) credentials as a professional artist. But don't worry. If anyone presses you on the matter, just talk fast and pepper your sentences with a few choice names and phrases ( Lawrence Weiner, Mel Bochner, J.S.G. Boggs, and for that matter "virtual commodity," "commodity fetish," "fetish object," and "achingly self-referential" ought to get you started).

And if that doesn't work out, remember nowadays you can always count on the same hydra-headed buyer of last resort I intend to unload my final two copies on: the eBay market.

Seriously, those nutjobs will buy anything.