When All of Life is a Paid-For Experience

The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism by Jeremy Rifkin

When cellular telephone companies began giving away Motorola  phones in the ’90s and charging only for the service, it began a new age of capitalism, one in which goods are secondary to service and companies turn themselves inside out to prolong their relationships with customers. According to Jeremy Rifkin’s The Age of Access, this reorganization has begun to affect every level of commerce. It’s also the reason why your own body tissues don’t belong to you anymore.

Rifkin, whose The End of Work and The Biotech Century have made him the Cassandra of our age, paints a dystopic vision of the future. The business models of the New Economy, he predicts, will crown culture king and render our traditional conceptions of freedom and property obsolete. And though Rifkin often overstates his case, favors big pronouncements over detailed arguments, and uses annoyingly vague terms like “the commodification of the human experience,” his work grapples with ideas in a way that business pundits rarely do.

Characterized by outsourcing, just-in-time inventory, supplier-user partnerships and powerful marketing departments, new corporations don’t really attempt to sell goods in an already saturated consumer culture: they hawk ideas and images. “Concepts,” Rifkin explains, “carried inside physical forms.” The athletic apparel giant Nike (NYSE: NKE), for example, owns almost no factories, machines or real estate. Instead, it outsources its production to Southeast Asian suppliers and its advertising to Weiden and Kennedy. What then is Nike? “A virtual company … a research and design studio with a sophisticated marketing formula and distribution mechanism.”

Even more sophisticated companies dispense with physical products altogether, preferring to sell lifestyle experiences in the form of services and entertainment. Companies like IBM and Xerox have realized that physical products provide only low profit margins, so they’re reconfiguring themselves to become ” trusted advisors” who provide lifetime computer support at a hefty profit.

Even beyond these services lies entertainment. According to Rifkin, burgeoning cultural industries already have begun to co-opt and package culture, in hopes of selling a historically stripped version back to the global public. With dramatic lighting and sultry costumes, Irish folk dancing becomes “Riverdance.” Air-condition a piece of Mexican shoreline and it becomes Club Med for only hundreds of dollars a day.

Live experience, it seems, has become the final product on the capitalist market.

Jeremy Rifkin.

Many of these ideas have become common currency among business gurus. Go Hollywood! say management consultants. Rifkin’s real contribution is his ability to synthesize all this information into a cohesive vision of the future, and to outline its more disturbing repercussions.

He convincingly argues that suburban shopping malls have supplanted the public square, with disastrous effects on the public discourse and free speech. Mall owners rarely allow petition signing to interfere with the customer “shopping experience,” to say nothing of soapboxes. Rifkin tracks how gated residence communities have swallowed the public space where democratic principles used to thrive. Most frightening, he shows that by gaining rights to the ideas used by the rest of the world, corporations have concentrated their hold on economic power more effectively than ever before. According to a 1990 California Supreme Court ruling, they even have to right to patent your body tissues without your permission, and make millions of the subsequent products.

But Rifkin’s need to tackle every business trend in sight makes for disjointed reading, and he sometimes makes slipshod arguments for the sake of effect. For example, “when people buy soaps and perfumes at The Body Shop, they are really buying the experience of being a friend of animals,” dismissing the possibility that consumers can make political statements with their dollars or that they might just like the smell of Fuzzy Peach Glycerin Soap. He’s also unbearably imprecise in his use of the term “cyberspace.” At times he implies it’s one of those 3-D virtual reality machines (which barely have a foothold in the market); at others, he envisions it as an animated culture-devouring force. This ignores the fact that people use the Internet to create new, non-commercial cultural communities and to organize massive opposition to institutions like the World Bank.

Rifkin’s finest insight comes in his last chapter, “Toward an Ecology of Culture and Capitalism,” where he proposes a new definition of freedom that shifts emphasis from individual ownership and autonomy to the right not to be excluded from economic and cultural opportunities. It’s a definition that has already worked for feminists and civil rights activists. Perhaps it will bridge the digital divide as well.

The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism: Where All of Life is a Paid-For Experience by Jeremy Rifkin (ISBN: 1585420182)

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