Book review: Jeremy Rifkin: Still relevant … perhaps more so

Posted on August 19, 2003 
Filed Under Anita, Book Review, The Star


How the Shift from Ownership to Access is Transforming Capitalism
Written by Jeremy Rifkin
Publisher: Penguin (2001)

AUTHOR Jeremy Rifkin’s book titled The Age of Access: How the Shift from Ownership to Access is Transforming Capitalism is a bold warning of how society is hurtling happily to a life of “paid experiences.”

Blame it on the forces of globalisation, pervasive technology and the growing culture of instant gratification. But as Rifkin has it, we are apparently warming up and embracing the trend of paying for everything including stuff that can be got for nothing.

The edition that I read was published two years ago, so why pay any attention to a dated version and for that matter, why read this review?

Simply because it is a noteworthy read and a good follow-up to his previous books that included the 1995 bestseller The End of Work, that was on the mark about how technology in use at the workplace will eventually displace jobs.

Convergence of commerce and culture
In The Age of Access, Rifkin traces economic history from the Industrial Age and how it shapes the future. He discusses the notion of ownership and leasing in detail, outlining how owning physical property is no longer as profitable as it was in the past.

Take heart, we no longer need to own acres of land to define wealth.

Ideas are wealth, according to Rifkin. He also points out that the shift from owning to leasing property is already apparent at large corporations that are shedding factories and other assets in favour of outsourcing and leasing.

The outsourcing trend is indeed growing with large corporations such as IBM, Microsoft and Sun Microsystems shifting resources from the United States to set up callcentres in India and other parts of Asia, including Malaysia.

Truly technology has played a hand in deeming physical property a redundant income generator, and has instead shaped ideas and expertise as wealth creators.

Rifkin implies that future wealth will be derived from successful execution of useful ideas and expertise.

But wait, should you think your bright idea might bring you plenty of moolah, think again. Indeed, the Internet has allowed the common man to gain information that was previously difficult to get, but it has yet to gain a large enough momentum to slow the control switch in the hands of the capitalist markets we have grown to live with.

Instead it has given the entrepreneurial capitalist an opportunity to control the stakes of the future. If much of the global economic past has been dominated by the presence of giant corporations, the future will still be dominated by the presence of giant corporations.

This time however the giant corporations will control and dish out entertaining experiences for the masses. And we’d be paying for them.

Reality TV is but one example, with shows like Fear Factor or Who wants to be a millionaire? where we watch participants living out our dreams, desires and even worst nightmares. Soon we will want to partake of such “realities” and be willing pay for it, as seen in international spinoff of the famed millionaire programme started by Celador Productions in Britain five years ago.

Collusion of culture and commerce
Rifkin reckons we have become consumers of cultural experiences because we will increasingly want to pay to live, and our moments are defined through these paid experiences.

Undoubtedly pleasure is derived from these experiences that can come in any form: Play, food, style, beauty or simply to be enlightened. The capitalists, comprising organisations and entrepreneurial people sourcing out unique cultures and packaging it as a product, will gain from our support and participation.

Now you would say that paying to enjoy something is already commonplace, but here Rifkin argues that the rife adoption of gadgets to simplify daily routines are propelling us into some blackhole, turning us into commodities.

The individual is no longer unique but a commodity in this circle of life.

How did we get to this stage? Well, largely by adopting images of our desire. The flashy flood of snazzy advertising that inundates us daily fill us subliminally with messages that wearing a pair of Nikes will induce a “nice and good” feeling.

Scary thought and sadly true, for we turn into pale shadows of ourselves by preferring to embrace an image as a self-representation.

The irony of it all is as consumers, we are at the losing end. We own nothing. The giant corporations will continue to profit from us.

Rifkin sees this happening even if most of us are blissfully unaware of what the future holds.

As he writes: “In an era where our culture is fast becoming commodified and mediated by global corporations, questions of institutional power and freedom are become more salient than ever before.”

Indeed protests are expected as people realise the widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The have-nots and practitioners in a civil society will push for change and to reclaim cultures that are being abused for commercial gain.

While Rifkin does not offer a way out of the future in his book, he does draw attention and questions traditional family values such as respect, love, obligation, commitment, pride and integrity. Did all that get swept away as we advanced from the Industrial to the Information Age? Or will they become more urgent for mankind to reclaim such values before we advance?

Jeremy Rifkin is the president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and has written 15 books since 1975, including worldwide bestsellers The End of Work(1995) and The Biotech Century (1998).

A noted social critic, his books have been translated into more than 20 languages. He holds a degree in economics from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and a degree in international affairs from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. A fellow at the Wharton School in Philadelphia since 1994, Rifkin teaches advanced management and executive education programmes.

He also serves as a personal advisor to Romano Prodi, the president of the European Commission, the governing body of the European Union. In that capacity, Rifkin provided the strategic white paper that led to the EU adoption of a new energy initiative to become the first fully integrated hydrogen superpower in the 21st century.

Rifkin is working on his 16th book.

Note:A search online showed Rifkin’s book is available at MPH stores for RM58.95 under a slightly different title: Age Of Access: The New Culture Of Hypercapitalism.

Published in The Star, Aug 19, 2003


Comments are closed.