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Title: The Age of Access
Author: Jeremy Rifkin
Publisher: Ken Tarcher/Putnam
Copyright: 2000
ISBN: 1-58542-018-2
Pages: 312
Price: $24.95
Rating: 85%
Rifkin, a fellow at the Wharton School Executive Education Program, is known for his Hegelian objections to modern capitalist trends (see his earlier work Time Wars for his fears of the impact of computers on society, for instance). In The Age of Access, Rifkin uses private property ownership, a sacred tenant of capitalism, to critique a recent development in business: access to services and "commodification" of experience. Those familiar with William Gibson's work (Neuromancer, Count Zero, etc.) will recognize his well-developed near-future scenario of corporate control of all vital information and the commodification of experience.

Some examples Rifkin cites are:

  • Leasing: This is not limited to automobiles anymore. Now, even seeds farmers use to grow their crops may not be reused; farmers must pay for the right to plant Monsanto-provided seeds each year.
  • Outsourcing: As has been the case for years, companies are aggressively divesting themselves of capital-intensive functions and farming out non-core competencies to contractors at lower costs than they experienced with the functions housed internally.
  • Franchising: McDonald's, Super 8, Subway, you name it, those businesses are for the most part not owned by the home office, but are operated under licensing agreements with the grantee's franchising entity.
  • The commodification of cultural experiences: Native American casinos, guided tours of restored or replicated historical sites (Colonial Williamsburg, for instance), Disneyland and, perhaps worst of all, malls, are taking the place of authentic cultural exposure.

While Rifkin acknowledged he and his wife enjoy taking guided tours when on holiday abroad, the fundamental question remains: at what time does the admission ticket no longer buy you a look at the past or the unvarnished facts but instead a commodity? When is history class replaced by a branded experience straight out of an MBA marketing class?

Rifkin also criticizes "gated" communities, which block the free flow of traffic, and "planned" communities, the first of which was Disney's Celebration, Florida. He notes on pages 116 and 117 the Celebration marketing literature pitched the development as a recapturing of the good old days when children could safely wander the streets at night while neighbors met and got to know each other on the streets. The problem, Rifkin argues, is that the community has no sense of history, but is instead an engineered experience, devoid of the years of development of, for example, Brooklyn in the 1920s.

Underlying all these developments is of course the World Wide Web. While Rifkin stated in a lecture at Washington, DC-area bookstore Prose and Poetry (attended by the reviewer) that he would not hope to see it disappear and that there is a vast amount of good to come from the web, he feels there is a potential hazard for users: networks rather than communities develop and people interact only if they have similar interests and professions, rather than because they live on the same block or floor. With information technology, misinformation can and of course has been spread, and virtual experiences could eventually become substitutes for real ones. Rifkin posits:

In a society where virtually everything is accessed, however, what happens to the personal pride, obligation, and commitment that go with ownership? And what of self-sufficiency? Being propertied goes hand in hand with being independent. Property is the means by which we gain a sense of personal autonomy in the world. When we access the means of our existence, we become far more reliant on others. While we become more connected and interdependent, do we risk at the same time becoming less self-sufficient and more vulnerable?

The shift in the structuring of human relationships from ownership to access appears to invite a trade-off of sorts whose outcome is far from certain. Will we liberate ourselves from our possessions, only to lose a sense of obligation to the things we fashion and use? Will we become more embedded in networks of relationships, only to become more dependent on powerful networks of corporate suppliers?

These questions become even more important when it comes to the temporizing of living arrangements. Again, in The Age of Access, space gives way to time, and human attention becomes more scarce and coveted than physical location. Place, which for so long provided context and helped characterize a person's very being in the world, is less relevant in today's high-speed, highly mobile society.

While Rifkin's arguments and concerns are well-intended and have merit, they surely represent a worst-case scenario and fail to take into account the adaptability of the human species to keep itself free and remain a social being. (Surely there must have been a cave dweller that foresaw nothing but disaster upon the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel.) Over the millennia humans have adapted to their changing environment and seem now to be better off as a whole than ever before. In the end, Rifkin is probably correct: human interaction is changing and will most likely continue to change, and businesses are causing people to become unpropertied. The real question is one of impact. Will the governments keep industry in check and stop a scenario reminiscent of the movie Rollerball or a Gibsonian nightmare, or will society evolve into one in which communities and relationships are created in different ways? One would suspect the latter, while keeping an eye out to avoid the former.

Consequences Rifkin has warned us of in the past have failed to materialize over society in general (the Time Wars scenario of computers basically ruining people's circadian rhythms and certain doomsday predictions is the one that has played itself out to a significant extent), but his work is unfailingly well-researched, intelligent, and an accurate description of the status quo. His worries about the future remind us of the slippery slope of dehumanization, a very necessary task for those concerned with society's future.

Postscript: Well after this book was written, on June 22, 2000, Microsoft announced it would transform its entire software strategy to an internet-based, subscription-enabled access model. While the full implementation is a few years away, and Sun and Oracle have been mentioning this kind of thing for some time, if the plan germinates the "propertied" aspect of software usage will have gone the way of the Monsanto seed.

--Douglas W. Frye, Ph.D. Candidate at George Mason University's Institute of Public Policy