Experience Overload

There’s no moment more significant or beautiful than the next

A reporter walks into a Lower Manhattan storefront to explore a “curious experiment in public entertainment.” He is escorted into a studio-like space bathed in colorful lights. Strange music emanates from invisible speakers as toga-wearing staff members pass out toys, kaleidoscopes, and balloons, the purpose of which remain unclear. “We are trying to overturn every entertainment convention,” the charismatic young founder of the place proclaims by way of explanation — except the bloated admissions charge, the reporter will note later.

This scene did not take place at the Museum of Ice Cream, Snark Park, 29 Rooms, or any of today’s photogenic, multisensory urban pleasure grounds. In fact, it didn’t even take place in this century. It happened in 1968, when a Time reporter went to a short-lived psychedelic happening in SoHo called Cerebrum. Like its contemporary descendants, Cerebrum was difficult to categorize but ultimately came to be described with a now familiar catch-all. “However defined — and perhaps it can’t be,” the Time reporter wrote, “Cerebrum is an experience.”

The “experience economy” wants to lay claim to our sense of having lived

It’s often claimed that we now live in the midst of the “experience economy,” a buzzy term coined in the late 1990s to describe the lengths to which retailers and service providers must go to attract customers in a world of endless consumer choice and one-click shopping. More recently, social media has intensified this concern, as people seek out all manner of documentable in-person experiences that bolster their personal brand.

The rise of the experience economy is often framed as an economic imperative: New malls, it is believed, might be able to stave off the retail apocalypse by partnering with an “immersive experiences company” like Meow Wolf. Airbnb can program tourists’ days as well as nights by brokering “Experiences” in addition to lodging. In light of print media’s decline, Pop-Up Magazine presents stories as “vivid, multi-media experiences” in a live stage show.

These examples suggest that the experience economy represents yet another wave of technological disruption that scrambles the old economic order. But it is not simply the product of recent economic transformations or the rise of smartphones and social media. It’s a phase of capitalism that began to emerge in the late 1960s, in the milieu that produced Cerebrum. Out of new values and new technologies came a new kind of economic offering, neither “good” nor “service,” that at first gradually and then massively expanded the purview of the economy.

Experience is a difficult idea to squeeze into the rigid framework of economics. Experience, as it is understood by philosophy and psychology, does not end on the way home from a vacation or the mall but is instead a continuous flow of consciousness. The experience economy would have us think that experiences are discrete commodities, packages that can fill the otherwise empty spaces of our day-to-day lives. It seeks to transform any event, however mundane, into a profit-making opportunity, as though nothing counts as an experience until it’s sold or until there is an app for it.

This grandiose project potentially has much larger implications even than the “attention economy” that is said to be taking over our lives. Where the attention economy seeks to monetize our ability to focus, the experience economy targets the everyday activities and relationships that form our personhood. It wants to lay claim to our sense of having lived, of having done or seen or felt anything at all.

The seeds of what we now think of as the experience economy were sown by forward-thinking members of the “establishment” who sought to integrate the 1960s counterculture’s values into a new capitalist order. At the forefront of this project were futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler. The thesis of their 1970 best seller Future Shock was that the exponential pace of societal and technological change would produce mass psychological responses that needed to be proactively managed, citing the social and political upheaval of the 1960s as proof. They popularized the term “information overload” to describe just one of the symptoms of dealing with rapid change. But in this maelstrom, they also saw great promise. The values of the counterculture, like self-expression and nonconformity, would produce new market opportunities for an economy that needed to keep growing even after people’s material needs were supposedly fulfilled.

The winners in this new economy would be what the Tofflers call “psychological corporations,” which would be able to navigate the transition from an economy predicated on “material satisfaction” to one based on “psychic gratification,” in a consumeristic parallel of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. The Tofflers were hardly alone in this conceptual marriage of business strategy and humanistic psychology. In the late 1970s, Stanford Research Institute’s Values and Life Styles Survey used Maslow’s principles of individuation and self-actualization to develop the field of lifestyle marketing, as documentarian Adam Curtis explores in The Century of the Self. Consumerism would push past its perceived limits by catering to individuals’ desire to express themselves or, rather, to their hope of becoming somehow more themselves through their consumption.

The Tofflers took this logic even further. Whereas lifestyle marketing sold conventional products by tailoring them to specific lifestyle tribes — think of the separate consumer universes associated with, say, punks and jocks — the Tofflers saw the “psychologization” of the economy creating a completely new form of consumption. They predicted “a revolutionary expansion of certain industries whose sole output consists not of manufactured goods, nor even of ordinary services, but of pre-programmed ‘experiences,’” like ClubMed vacations, self-help retreats at Esalen Institute, or idle afternoons at Cerebrum. Looking to the future, they imagine consumer experiences characterized by “simulated environments” and “interactive films” that would exceed the possibilities of any vacation package, allowing consumers to satisfy their deepest desires and express their true selves with media technology. Because these immersive experiences would be “vicarious” — participatory but with apparently no immediate real-world ramifications for the consumer— they could be far more dangerous, smarmy, or shameful than anything most people would otherwise think to do. Like the parlor walls in Fahrenheit 451 or the android hosts of WestWorld, virtual experiences would be so absorbing, they would blur the lines between fantasy and reality. And for the Tofflers, therein lay their peril: “One of the definitions of sanity, itself, is the ability to tell real from unreal,” they write. “Shall we need a new definition?”

This question has persisted, taking on renewed urgency with the current fears about deepfakes and other forms of media manipulation. Such concerns usually lament the decline of documents as proof and the loss of consensus reality, but the Tofflers pointed to a deeper root: The status of experiences as “real” or “unreal” becomes ambiguous once they are construed as commodifiable.

When Joseph Pine and James Gilmore coined the phrase “experience economy” in a 1998 issue of Harvard Business Review, they reiterated the Tofflers’ economic hierarchy of needs formulation, rechristening it “the progression of economic value,” while omitting the Tofflers’ epistemological concerns. In Pine and Gilmore’s account, experience emerges as a more differentiated and thus more valuable economic offering in a marketplace where goods and services have become abundant and interchangeable. Tellingly, the closest they come to defining “experience” is in the context of a transaction: “An experience occurs when a company intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event,” they write.

Pine and Gilmore’s quintessential experience-economy businesses include the Hard Rock Café, Niketown, and Brookstone, which exceeded their nominal functions as restaurants or stores and became destinations in their own right for people who didn’t want to buy anything. People were so keen to experience these places that Pine and Gilmore wondered whether they could charge admission. That’s what the Museum of Ice Cream eventually accomplished, becoming an economic offering completely detached from the sale of goods or services.

The metaphor of performance and the aspiration to create fantastical places apart from the real world have given rise to the critique that these immersive experiences are by their nature inauthentic or, at the very least, unsophisticated. In the 1990s, an entire school of criticism, led by architect Michael Sorkin, decried American urbanism’s apparent obsession with gigantic shopping malls, faux historic districts like New York’s South Street Seaport, and the simulated grittiness of newly gentrifying neighborhoods, as simply “variations on a theme park.” More recently, art critic Ben Davis has described places like the Museum of Ice Cream and Meow Wolf as “Big Fun Art” installations that don’t “require any historical context, knowledge or even patience to be enjoyed.”

This line of critique has prompted the creation of a new and ostensibly different genre of experiences to provide fresh pathways to the “real.” Airbnb Experiences, for instance, is conceived as the opposite of Niketown-style tourism, inviting consumers to “live like a local,” according to a major ad campaign, with dance lessons, cooking classes, or city tours with neighborhood personalities. People who would not deign to set foot in a Hard Rock Café and instead patronize hole-in-the-wall restaurants and dive bars now get to enjoy the experience of seeming to evade the experience economy, even though such places essentially define it. Of course, neither of these genres of experience is in fact more authentic or real. But at least Niketown makes no pretensions about its purpose: selling overpriced athletic attire. Airbnb Experiences, by contrast, brokers economic exchange dressed up as cultural exchange.

If the experience economy once found ways to get us off the couch and into brick-and-mortar storefronts, social media enables it to monetize the remaining hours

Not coincidentally, the same authenticity dialectic also plays out on social media, which can simultaneously certify experiences as “official” (they really happened) and cheapen them as “mediated” (they are contrived for show). Social media have emerged as a linchpin of the experience economy, not only driving the popularity of photogenic Big Fun Art installations but also powering the commodification of parts of life that we might not immediately identify as experiences. If the experience economy once found ways to get us off the couch and into brick-and-mortar storefronts, social media enables it to monetize the remaining hours of the day.

That the experience economy would expand beyond the realms of tourism and entertainment was anticipated by another breathless futurist, Jeremy Rifkin. In his 2001 book Age of Access, he predicts the buying and selling of experiences would bring market incentives into nearly every facet of life. The experience economy, he argues, produces “a world in which each person’s own life becomes, in effect, a commercial market.” Rifkin imagines a future “where virtually every activity outside the confines of family relations is a paid-for experience, a world in which traditional reciprocal obligations and expectations — mediated by feelings of faith, empathy, and solidarity — are replaced by contractual relations in the form of paid memberships, subscriptions, admission charges, retainers, and fees.”

This is a vision of the experience economy populated not by Meow Wolf so much as by TaskRabbits, LinkedIn connections, Instagram influencers, and Tinder matches. Free social media, rather than the paid subscriptions Rifkin predicts, have provided the framework for this expansion of the experience economy. The content and interactions on social media can be monetized as personal branding for users and personal data for companies. At the same time, metrics including likes, followers, and star-ratings serve as social currency, giving the experiences of friendship, trustworthiness, jealousy, and self-affirmation a rational, economically legible expression.

Viewed in light of social media, Rifkin and the Tofflers’ concerns about the experience economy end in the same place: The economic colonization of human experience that Rifkin describes is made possible by the “simulated environments” of the internet and the “interactive films” that are apps and websites. The abstraction of human experience on these digital platforms is what allows for its commodification. Here the experience economy converges with what theorist Nick Srnicek has called platform capitalism, Big Tech’s attempt to facilitate all economic activity in their clouds and marketplaces. By expanding the universe of economic activity to include social and emotional life, the experience economy makes these platforms even more profitable and indispensable.

In How to Do Nothing, the artist and writer Jenny Odell centers her critique of the attention economy on “the way that corporate platforms buy and sell our attention, as well as designs and uses of technology that enshrine a narrow definition of productivity.” In the attention economy, as in “all modern capitalist systems,” she writes, “‘units’ of attention are assumed undifferentiated and uncritical.”

That sense of narrowness, or “flattening,” to use another of Odell’s descriptors, would seem at odds with the experience economy’s promise of differentiated, stand-out experiences. But as the experience economy becomes more intertwined with social media and other digital platforms, it begins to look more like a compliment to the attention economy, ultimately making it all the more seductive.

When it comes to chatting with friends, posting photos, consuming news, or any of the other traditional domains of the attention economy, there are plenty of options. Platforms therefore need to provide an experience to attract, and retain, our attention. This is the prime directive of “user experience design,” the art of making apps, websites, and, increasingly, physical environments as engaging and seamless as possible, creating an “experience” out of what would otherwise be the low hum of life. In attempting to stage person-to-person relationships and other everyday activities, today’s “psychological corporations” must provide a user experience that is better than or at least sufficiently different from the alternative, whether it’s another social media platform or face-to-face interaction. And they seem to be succeeding. We voluntarily export more of our psychological experience to their platforms — not only our attention, but our social lives, our creative endeavors, our emotional ups and downs.

Instead of the “information overload” that the Tofflers feared, we are now faced with the distinct possibility of “experience overload,” stemming from the formalization and commodification of so many aspects of life. If the experience economy continues on its current trajectory, the question will inevitably arise: What happens when more of life is an experience than not?

The philosopher William James was fascinated by the notion of “pure experience”; the flow of life before a given moment is identified as an experience. His discussion of the subject in “The Thing and Its Relations” is paradoxical. On one hand, there is something romantic about this “active sense of living which we all enjoy, before reflection shatters our instinctive world for us.” But on the other hand, “had pure experience, the pragmatist says, been always perfectly healthy, there would never have arisen the necessity for isolating or verbalizing any of its terms. We should just have experienced inarticulately and unintellectually enjoyed.” If experience is to remain pure — unreified by thought, language, or economic exchange — there’s no life experience, no learning experience, no moment more significant or beautiful than the next. According to this framework, experience — the impure kind — is one of the things that makes us human.

James suggests that a valuable experience demands reflection in order to have any meaning or resonance beyond itself. But if experience becomes an end unto itself, the rest of life begins to look dull and insignificant by contrast. The only solution then becomes more experience; the dark rectangle on your desk begs to be touched, offering to open up a portal of experiences to brighten the void.

“Experience, pursued, creates certain paradoxes,” the contemporary critic Mark Greif writes in a 2005 essay, “The Concept of Experience (The Meaning of Life Part I),” published on the cusp of the social media revolution. He catalogs the ways in which we reconfigure our lives in the pursuit of experience and, sometimes, lose track of life in the process. For young people, experience is often associated with substances and sex, Greif argues; as one gets older, these are supplemented with tourism. In any event, experience can act as a placeholder for more challenging needs and desires. “Experience is directly attainable,” Greif writes. “It is definite and cumulative, where happiness is ambiguous and pleasure evanescent.”

It can be valuable to consider why we seek out particular experiences via particular platforms

The experiences that we typically describe as such are countable, discreet and bite-sized. They are the perfect fodder for our “stories,” which tend to be populated by the genres Greif identified more than a decade before the concept was introduced. Never before has experience moved so quickly from “pure” stream of consciousness to bounded, recorded narrative. “Thus everyone longs to tell his story today, but not as literature,” Greif writes.

While the relentless pursuit of peaks of experience will always be a tempting way to organize one’s life, a bigger force could be what Greif calls the “radicalization” of experience: “making it so total that its internal distinctions of use and waste, special and mundane, ultimately disappear.” This is the same definition of experience implied by user-experience design — the notion that anything can become an experience worth paying for, in dollars or data, if it wins our attention.

In a sense, by providing us a steady diet of experiences, the experience economy may begin to inadvertently return us to a state of pure experience. The mindless, yet emotionally charged scroll, the sugar rush of an interactive installation, the meal or date or errand streamlined by a third-party platform are quickly becoming the stuff of our everyday lives, devolving into non-experiences. What starts to stand out are those moments that are not designed by a psychological corporation or optimized by user-experience designers.

Odell provides a roadmap for this new terrain in How to Do Nothing. Her prescriptions for resisting the attention economy also pertain to its enabler, the experience economy. Odell urges a new sense of “placefulness” that embraces “those spaces deemed commercially unproductive,” like parks and public transportation, and the “‘off time’ that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.” Learning the history and ecology of the spaces we inhabit every day and noticing the rhythms of life all around us, Odell argues, can be a profound, rewarding anti-experience structured in opposition to the things we now purchase and produce as experiences. Stepping outside our many “electronic studio(s) of participation,” as Cerebrum’s founder described his creation, is as radical an act today as stepping into Cerebrum was in 1968.

Of course, resisting these technological platforms is not tantamount to “opting out,” as Odell points out. The same sense of placefulness can also be applied to the experience economy itself. Thinking critically about how the platforms we use color the experiences they facilitate can help us make meaning out of those experiences, to make them “impure” in a constructive way. It can also be valuable to consider why we seek out particular experiences via particular platforms. Is it the case that a given experience is not possible without being facilitated by a psychological corporation? That doesn’t mean it’s not worth having, but it is worth noticing, if only to contemplate how the nature of its provenance seeps into the rest of life.

Thinking through the implications of the experience economy is always a semantic adventure. Like the Time reporter at Cerebrum, we use the term experience to describe economic offerings that are indescribable, that can’t be ticked off a to-do list or tossed in a shopping cart. This haziness has been a key factor in the quiet expansion of the experience economy into every facet of life. Identifying the origins and meanings of this economic category is an important historical and theoretical project, but it does little to help people become the masters of their own experience. Maybe it’s more helpful to ditch the experience or attention economy labels and simply describe their effects: our thoughts, feelings, perception, and sociality turned economic. No matter what we call it, this is the trajectory of capitalism, and it seems poised only to accelerate. As we consider capitalism’s limits, we shouldn’t restrict our critiques to goods and services, housing and health care. We now need to consider our lives.

Benjamin Schneider is a freelance writer based in San Francisco, focusing on urbanism, technology, and culture.