January 2, 2020

Experience, Commodities, and the American Dream

The psychic center of American social life has shifted from buying things to feeling them.

I'm struck by the implicit force that the “Experience Economy” has on value. When the value we derive from a good or service is inherently tied to our experience of it, this shields our ability to objectively assess its full worth.

For example, the value we assign to social media is a function of how immersed we are with its content (the experience). We don’t consider the opportunity cost of our time and focus. But is the value of Facebook really equal to the number of hours spent engaging with it?

Any technology designer (or someone paying attention to design in technology) should familiarize themselves with Karl Marx’s concept of “Commodity Fetishism”. Borrowing from Anthropology, he ascribes the notion of fetishism (ascribing metaphysical properties to common objects) to the way people value commodities in a capitalist economy.

The form of wood, for instance, is altered, by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that, the table continues to be that common, every­day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent.

Similarly, we are constantly placing irrational value on objects owing to our experience of it, not the thing itself. Why is a Peloton worth so much if I can create essentially the same setup for far less investment? Why do we value the blue bubbles in iMessage?

On its own, each example feels benign. But the systemic effect of the Economic Value of Experience diminishes both the value and rationality of individualism. This is directly reflected in the social patterns we see on display today. Group think, mob mentality, consumerization …

When do we start testing for this? When are those behaviors considered a bug? And do people even care?

These questions require research (and if you're aware of where any such research exists today, please let me know). But I believe as a discipline and as a society, there is extreme value in uncovering the answers. If design is to build its influence on the back of Experience, we must reckon with the results.