In the virtualized future, everything is for sale - even you

THE AGE OF ACCESS By Jeremy Rifkin Tarcher/Putnam 312 pp., $24.95

Dystopias come in all shapes and sizes, from the perpetual boot in the face of George Orwell's "1984" to the reality-soothing pleasure pills of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

A social critic who specializes in raising alarms, Jeremy Rifkin rings an apocalyptic humdinger in "The Age of Access."

This nonfiction study posits that capitalism's addiction to new technologies eats away at traditional notions of property, community, and selfhood. Sooner than we think, life will be commercialized to the point that it is "likely to produce a very different human being."

Dystopias may differ, but they share one trait: Subtlety is not their strong suit.

Grimly earnest, Rifkin hypothesizes the end of human nature as we know it by critiquing current business and lifestyle trends, such as corporate downsizing, gated communities, and robotics. He blames the decay of civil society on the service economy, whose dependence on outsourcing undercuts notions of ownership, and cybernetworks, with their disorienting fusion of isolation and faux togetherness. People and businesses own less because they would rather rent or lease experiences than buy things.

Nothing - from the arts and religion, sports and social movements - is beyond the reach of "hypercapitalism." He writes, "Cultural time wanes, leaving humanity with only commercial bonds to hold civilization together. This is the crisis of postmodernity."

Rifkin suggests new technologies will shape a generation of theatrical selves with the empathy of a search engine. As artist Mark Amerika suggests, "I link therefore I am."

Yes, the virtualized future calls for bold speculation, and Rifkin provides troubling commentary on the growing corporate control of genes and seeds; the courts have either not kept up with advances in science and technology or are intimidated by the rate of change, an unprecedented degree of acceleration that makes old quandaries look new again.

But "The Age of Access" sounds a gong and then repeatedly bangs it over the reader's head. Rifkin writes as if the interconnection of work, play, and profit is novel. His section on the subversion of modern art is baby talk, and his view of indigenous cultures (romanticism of the third world with a dash of Andy Hardy) is surprisingly static.

"The Age of Access" supplies plenty of startling factoids (half the world has never made a phone call), but pins its big thesis on questionable assumptions; for example, that human nature is as malleable as Play-Doh, a postmodernist canard mouthed by leftwing academics and arcane French theorists, a number of whom Rifkin quotes worshipfully.

How do we keep the psyche off the electronic auction block? Beware of world music, argues Rifkin, a model of corporate attempts to make a profit by homogenizing the local cultures of the world. He also suggests we fight for "the reestablishment of deep social exchange, the re-creation of social trust and social capital, and the restoration of strong geographic communities."

This bland sociological mantra isn't going to garner much passion or conviction: How are you going to keep them down on the farm once they have seen Paree? Or in this case, once they have a computer? The answer depends on whether you believe people have the imagination and will it takes to mold technology into what they want it to be.

Among the many issues Rifkin overlooks is the exploitation of ideas in an age where access is king. After all, the author lectures "to corporate management around the world" which is desperate for the alarmist trend-spotting he sells. How much of his business depends on him warning these honchos that "civilization risks deconstruction on a grand scale"? The millennium creates an appetite for end-of-the-world movies and wheezes about the melt-down of human nature. Balanced arguments don't have the glamour or hysterical cachet that garners face time with the powerful. And getting attention for shouting the loudest is what the age of access is partly about.

*Bill Marx writes on books and theater for The Boston Globe.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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