the age of access (rifkin)

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Thu Mar 23 06:30:36 PST 2000

kelley wrote:

>since you disliked rifkin's stuff so much last time round, doug......
>March 13, 2000
>The Age of Access
> We're entering an era in which lifelong customer relationships are the
>ultimate commodities market.
> By Jeremy Rifkin

Boy this is a piece of crap. I've got a review of it forthcoming in Wired, of all places. Here's my first draft of it; I revised it some on the editor's urging, but it looks like I didn't keep a copy of that version.



The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life Is A Paid-For Experience, by Jeremy Rifkin (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 320 pp., $24.95)

In 1995, Jeremy Rifkin published The End of Work. Its thesis is in its title -- that automation has renderred the human worker obsolete, and that production without people is the wave of the future. Now, 14 million new American jobs later, Rifkiin has a new product, The Age of Access. (There was an intervening book, The Biotech Century, about another of his obsessions, the risks of messing with the genetic code. He is nothing if not prolific.) It fits in with his well-practiced formula: announce a new phase of history in which everything you knew has to be discarded, because everything has really really changed. This book is even worse than The End of Work: superficial, dumboundingly repetitive, and finally unsure of its own point of view.

In the old days, exchange relationships, the ownership of property, and the accumulation of things were what mattered. In the New Economy (and when in the last two or three centuries hasn't there been a New Economy?) "markets are making way for networks, and ownership is steadily being replaced by access." This formula is repeated on almost every page, amidts with a relentless piling up of quotes and anecdotes. We don't buy cars, we lease them (though there's still a big hulk of metal involved). We don't save money, we borrow it (even though there's about $300 billion a year of foreign savings coming into the U.S. to make this possible). Firms don't buy from arms-length suppliers anymore, they set up mutually beneficial netwoks (though when Asians do this it's denounced as inflexible cronyism).

Yeah, sure, some of this is true. Physical capital isn't as important as it used to be -- though the cyberlife wouldn't be possible without chips, video screens, and fiber optic cables. Marketing may take precedence over production -- though this is a trend Rifkin himself traces back to the 1920s. Tourism may be the world's biggest industry -- but he traces its origins back to the 19th century. Today is a lot more like yesterday, and tomorrow more like today, than trend-sniffers like to admit.

The old Rifkin was a worrywart. The new Rifkin -- the one with a fellowship at Wharton and the ears of corporate managers around the world -- has evolved. For most of the book, he recites the dazzling transformations of the Age of Access like a consultant, but without, say, Tom Peters' compelling shimmer of madness. But at the very end, the cassandra elbows aside the cheerleader. If things proceed unchecked, the Age of Access -- "where all of life is a paid-for experience" -- will destroy local cultures (self-evidently good of course) and banalize human relationships (presumed to be non-banal now). How can we stop these evils? Rifkin doesn't say. We just have to. Or the consequences will be profound and far-reaching.

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