Published on Monday, April 3, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Can Civilization Survive With A Greatly
Reduced Government And Cultural Sphere,
With Only The Commercial Sphere Left As
The Primary Mediator Of Human Life?
by Jeremy Rifkin
The big changes in history, the ones that fundamentally
alter how we think and act, have a
way of creeping up on us until one day everything we know
is suddenly passe and we
realize we are in a whole new world. It wasn't until the
late 19th century, for example, that
the British historian Arnold Toynbee coined the term "the
Industrial Age," nearly 100 years
after it first arrived on the world scene.
Similarly, for the better part of the 20th century, a new
form of capitalism has been slowly
gestating and is only now about to overtake industrial
capitalism. We are entering an "age
of access," an era in which the commodification of human
time is becoming even more
important than the commodification of material things.
Economic forecasters and consultants talk about the "new
experience industries" and "the
experience economy," terms that did not even exist a few
short years ago. Futurist James
Ogilvey observes that "growth of the experience industry
represents a satiation with the stuff
that the industrial revolution produced." Ogilvey says,
"Today's consumers don't ask
themselves as often, 'What do I want to have that I don't
have already?' They are asking,
'What do I want to experience that I have not experienced
Experiential commerce is already overtaking us. Travel and
tourism is now the leading
industry in the world with more than $3.7 trillion in
revenue. By the year 2008, revenues are
expected to double to more than $7.5 trillion or 20% of the
world's total gross domestic
product, dwarfing the information industries and other
Meanwhile, malls are metamorphosing into destination
entertainment centers where people
can play the latest video games, be entertained by Imax,
experience virtual reality
simulators or socialize at theme clubs like the Rainforest
Cafe. At the same time, millions
of people are going online and becoming part of the new
cyberspace culture, and cable and
satellite television is exploding into hundreds of viewing
channels, while "content"
companies rush to exploit the many new facets of cultural
For the wealthier members of society, just about any
experience now can be purchased in
the cultural marketplace. One can seek spiritual guidance
from a Tibetan monk at a
Renaissance weekend retreat or whisk the family away to
Williamsburg, Va., to experience
a reenactment of 18th century American life.
The selling of the culture in the form of more and more
"paid for" human activity is quickly
leading to a world where pecuniary kinds of human
relationships are substituting for
traditional social relationships. Imagine a world where
virtually every activity outside the
confines of family relations is a paid-for experience, a
world where traditional reciprocal
obligations and expectations, mediated by feelings of
faith, empathy and solidarity, are
replaced by contractual relations in the form of paid
memberships, subscriptions, admission
charges, retainers and fees.
We increasingly buy the time of others, their regard and
affection, sympathy and attention.
We buy enlightenment and play, grooming and grace and
between--experiences that at one time were only available
to the rich. Lifestyle designers
like Martha Stewart and Ralph Lauren help us arrange our
homes and wardrobes to create
the appropriate cultural impression and ambience; personal
trainers manage our bodies,
and personal assistants even do our shopping for us.
Meanwhile our children are enrolled in
every kind of commercially sponsored after-school program
and activity designed to improve
their athletic prowess, artistic talents and intellectual
skills. The very idea of playing with the
other kids on the block is becoming an anachronism.
In the 1980s and 1990s, deregulation of government
functions and services was the rage. In
less than 20 years, the global marketplace successfully
absorbed large parts of what was
formerly the government sphere--including mass
transportation, utilities and
telecommunications--into the commercial realm. Now, the
economy has turned its attention
to the last remaining independent sphere of human activity,
the culture, with an eye toward
making human experience itself the ultimate commodity.
If there is an Achilles' heel to the new age, it lies in
the misguided belief that commercially
directed relationships and electronically mediated networks
can substitute for traditional
relationships and communities. The premise itself is deeply
flawed. The two ways of
organizing human activity flow from very different sets of
assumptions and values, making
them irreconcilable rather than analogous.
Traditional relationships are born of such things as
kinship, ethnicity, geography and shared
spiritual visions. Social contracts are steeped in the
notion of indebtedness to ancestors,
unborn generations, the Earth and its creatures and a
Membership in traditional communities also brings with it
restraints on personal action.
Obligations to others take precedence over personal whims,
and security flows from being
embedded in a larger social organism.
Commodified relationships, on the other hand, are
instrumental in nature. The only glue that
holds them together is the agreed-upon transaction price.
Commercial contracts are bound
by neither history nor legacy but rather performances and
results. The obligations between
parties are explicit, generally quantifiable and spelled
out in contractual terms.
Commodified relationships are also designed to maintain a
distance between the parties. It
is understood at the outset that the relationship is based
on nothing deeper than the
exchange of money. Whatever shared experience occurs
between the parties in the course
of their relationship is meant to be superficial, expedient
and short-lived. When a server, for
example, shares pleasantries with clients, entertains them,
shows concern for their
well-being, all parties know that at least some of the
emotional flow between the parties is
pretense. It is not freely surrendered as a gift but
commercially solicited and paid for.
The great issue at hand in the coming years is whether
civilization can survive with a greatly
reduced government and cultural sphere, with only the
commercial sphere left as the
primary mediator of human life.
- - -
Jeremy Rifkin Is the Author of "The Age of Access: the New
Culture of Hypercapitalism
Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience"
(Tarcher/putnam, April 2000)
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times
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