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Simulated Experiences, Simulated Lives

by Stefan Kalt  

It is a commonplace that, in the West, we have moved from a manufacturing/production economy to a service/consumption economy. In The Age of Access (2000), Jeremy Rifkin goes further, arguing that the entertainment services - or what German sociologists  Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer oxymoronically dubbed the "culture industry" - increasingly take center stage, and have begun to define the trajectory of the service economy. The culture industry encompasses movies, television, music, theme parks, and tourism. These are the fastest-growing businesses in the United States, and Rifkin notes they give us what we want most of all: "experiences." Although Hollywood and the recording industry still constitute the largest sector of the "experience economy," the theme park business and the tourist business operate at its forefront. Here, Rifkin argues that the consumer's own lived experience - in a sense, his altered consciousness - becomes the core commodity. The culture industry neatly packages experiences of the culturally authentic, the phantasmagoric, and the far-and-away. Of course, there is no real adventure, because that would require danger and risk. Rather, all is simulated (in the case of theme parks) or domesticated (in the case of tourism) to provide a safe spectacle. As a result, the historical assets of traditional indigenous peoples are reduced to props, stage settings, and backdrops.


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And, as Rifkin points out, everyone is getting in on the act. Having realized that all business is show business, marketing and design firms have taken a hint from the culture industry and joined forces to create shopper's paradises where the act of consumption can continue without interruption, come rain or come shine. Hence, for example, the almost viral proliferation of indoor extravaganza malls across North America. In the more lavish of these temples to consumerism, such as Canada's West Edmonton Mall, shoppers can pass through Parisian boulevards to replicas of New Orleans' Bourbon Street, surrounded by droves of singers, magicians, impersonators, and walls of wide-angle screens. MGM Studios, Lion Country Safari, and other theme parks merely represent the perfected form of "experience shopping."

Rifkin describes in detail a slew of phenomena which everyone recognizes. The desire to sell simulated experiences certainly animates the culture industry and its spin-offs. Rifkin rightly wonders how traditional or indigenous cultures will be able to survive in the voyeuristic glare of Hollywood and the Travel Channel, outlive the aping distortions of theme parks, or repulse the repeated invasions of globe-trotting tourists. However, after describing choreographed-for-TV marriage rituals of primitive island peoples or the drowning of Cuban salsa in the popular swill of "adult contemporary" World Music, Rifkin suggests that such precious cultural capital can be preserved if local communities band together to defend it from commercial infection. Once "cultural capitalism" is evicted, everything will be okay.

Or so Rifkin believes. There is reason to doubt this. In the post-Cold War world, tourism is fast becoming the most important means by which traditional societies sustain themselves economically. Without tourism, their future is bleak. To consider an example: A couple of decades ago, the US, some European nations, and the USSR stabilized the fragile economies of a number of Caribbean and Pacific Island nations. While many of these countries derived a substantial portion (and, in some cases, almost all) of their revenue from tourism, single "cash crop" trade was often their economic mainstay, and favorable trade arrangements with (and loans from) wealthier patron countries ensured economic stability. These days, with new "free trade" laws threatening the viability of small undiversified agro-economies, and with alternative economies slow to develop, the inhabitants are quickly tapping into a resource that is ready at hand - their culture. Not all are doing this, as Rifkin believes, at the behest of Western cultural prospectors. On the contrary, the "natives" themselves are taking the initiative, wooing tourists in a desperate bid to survive in the twenty-first century.

On a recent visit to Molokai, Hawaii, I encountered this local initiative firsthand. Molokai is a tiny island virtually untouched by tourism. Its native inhabitants have traditionally lived by fishing from rock jetties along the coast. Today, most still do this. But they also work at a smattering of low-paying service jobs. Because these jobs pay so little, and because fishing is not as good as it once was (due to the near disappearance of native fish), many islanders have left Molokai in search of a better livelihood. To stem their flight, some islanders have tried to convince would-be emigrants that they can earn a decent income by turning themselves into living tourist attractions. Although this argument has not convinced everyone, it has elicited an enthusiastic response from some, who are now looking for ways to make their homes, their fishing, their food, and their social customs of interest to travelers. Financially speaking, this gambit might work. If it does, what would be its impact on Molokai's culture? I have a hunch that it will turn these "simple" fishermen into "smart" entrepreneurs. That is to say, people who once kept to their ancestral ways out of habit will transmogrify into clever opportunists eager to "act out" their culture before an ogling audience. Can they conceivably remain unselfconscious embodiments of the "folk mind" when they earn their living, or a sizeable chunk of it, by offering shrewdly packaged "lifestyle tours" of their homes and environs? Given their economic straits, the residents of Molokai can hardly be blamed for hawking their culture. It's just sad to think that, as a consequence, their way of life is probably destined to vanish. Ironically, it might vanish even faster if the residents don't milk it as a spectacle: With no money, they would simply have to leave Molokai.

Someone once said that, as the modern age advances, everything "natural" is replaced by something artificial. This may not be true in general, but it certainly applies to traditional culture, or what remains of it. Regarding Molokai, I speculate that the savvier islanders will indeed benefit financially from the kind of "sustainable tourism" that is now being envisioned. Over time, however, their increasingly commoditized culture will begin to seem less authentic and interest in it will probably flag. This has already happened in the Caribbean, where travelers who go there to enjoy the native culture are reporting a drop in the quality of their experience. In the British Virgin Islands, for example, there are only two kinds of people: tourists and those who serve tourists. The warm weather, beautiful water, and sandy beaches are certainly reason enough to vacation there. But those who seek more than this had better sharpen their abilities for suspending disbelief - or go elsewhere. Unlike the Virgin Islands, Molokai lacks the extensive beaches and scintillating turquoise water which, in the absence of cultural amenities, would ensure its status as a vacation hot spot. Thus, if Molokai's inhabitants wish to outlive the Age of Tourism, they had better begin thinking about what to do after the curtain falls on their cultural performance.


The author, Stefan Kalt, is currently an adjunct professor in the Department of Philosophy at Boston College.


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