Revisiting the Experience Economy
Some while back I put together a partial draft of something about the idea of the experience economy and, in the name of revision, it seemed apt to poke the subject again. Rather than a purely descriptive ramble, perhaps there is something interesting to consider in the question of how the theory can be applied to the material world (rather than get caught up in pretty mental models).
Synthesizing the theory into a thought experiment of sorts - people talk about wanting to live a life so that they can “die happy”. If this were all there was to it then one could simply take Fentanyl or overdose on MDMA. Yet, people don’t just do this. I don’t mean this to make light of the deaths from the opioid epidemic but to magnify at the reason as to why a supposedly rational person decides to not follow this; my claim is that the reason is because of an indescribable essence to the living experience that is worth far more than whatever happiness one would have prior to leaving this world. That essence and experience is what people are actually affecting, directly and indirectly, when they go about their actions.
Whether that is by metaphysically grounding oneself with religion or simply touching up the atmosphere with a song, all things can be traced back to this referenced essence. Does this fall down a slippery slope of being some hinterwelt or world of perfect ideals? Perhaps if the investigation stopped with the discovery of this latent substance. Following the pattern of Catholic Integralism or Wang Huning’s social software, how could we chart out the undercurrents of this ‘essence’ in one’s perceived experience?
To approach this, I think it can be worth noting that it is not only unfalsifiable (as many things are) but also intangible similarly to dark matter. Like intellectual dark matter, we can infer certain properties and functions. We know it’s not isolatable or studyable whether you want to frame it through sonder or by pointing out that people have pondered the question of meaning for millennia and we’re still without answer (for the meme, one could say this second point is simply us not having completed the system of German Idealism). Yet we can see there is something that keeps people going, especially in a digitally native world that seems to be zealously materialist without greater meaning.
The place at which this ‘essence’ subsists is in the question of what is the story you are living. Are you living in a time of fervent techno-accelerationist progress and you’re simply riding the wave, regardless of whatever you do at an individual level? Are you living in a war against social stratification and taking it upon yourself to attack gross power imbalances; where, even if you tackle one problem and find another matter to protest, piety is one of your key virtues. Are you living a lobotomized cycle of performing your work and duties, partying to forget, and repeating to back to where you started?
Whatever the story is evaluated to be, one ought to note how the character you play permeates throughout your intuition. Should you be waking up and looking into the mirror to see an individual with agency, that will lead you to go about decisions that feel as though you are at the helm. Should you be waking up and looking into the mirror to see a member of some group-defined identity, that will lead you to go about decisions that feel as though you are a component of the larger-than-you system you reside within.
So, if you can fiddle with the interpreted story that one has in their mind, you will then indirectly affect the way one goes about things. Here, I think it’s undismissable to acknowledge this indirectness.
It’s not possible to explicitly predefine or hand-hold every thought or decision. People have an incredible number of possible inputs and to assume that all of them can be scripted for would be silly. If you were coloring a large piece of fabric, it would do you much success to dip it into a dye rather than to color it part by part. In the same fashion, the question at hand is in this subliminal programming that indirectly nudges a person in intended directions.
Here, one could suppose something mimetic but mimesis is dependent on reciprocity so there must be a genesis to the story that gets implanted. Like with Newton’s first law, we must act upon a person’s baseline with an unbalanced force where the unbalanced force here is some means of affecting that internal story. Well, how does one go about doing so?
Here it’s worth pointing out the “economy” mention in the “experience economy” is not an allusion to the money or market economics of these experiences but simply an implementation detail (money isn’t needed for people to gift goods or participate in orgies at burning man). Additionally, one should note the difference between providing instruction or rhetoric that spells out symptoms rather than tackle the underlying roots.
An example of that last statement would be the modern cypherpunk ideal that spells out for people to live by the Sovereign Individual and instruct you/others to use select softwares like Signal, Ghost, or so on. While the story of a world based on Bitcoin and Technology (capital T intentional) is unveiled, the actions of using privacy-focused software are things that would simply be symptoms of this world actually being instated rather than precedents that actually convince people of this story. By herding people to these end states, the gospels of this movement may feel as though they are hand crafting the world they recognize but, to the people who are simply following along, they are not attaining a change in views or grokking the referenced story. As a result, it continues to be a pipe dream that only appeals to a certain niche.
Instead, ask the question of what you can instill that not only gets the immediate outcome/symptom you are looking for but also supplants something so that people may also respond to an unprovided prompt in the way you would want. Give a man a fish and he shall end up hungry but teach a man to fish and he’ll never be hungry again.
One example of this being executed on in the real world is the story of Musical.ly. The way Alex Zhu frames the dynamics of user activity on the platform is as a nation competing with other economies (here the other ‘economies’ being other social media platforms). If you look at existing social apps, the winners and distribution of popularity are already settled; by joining one of these platforms you develop the basis that you’re merely a participant and simply consume the content available as opposed to setting out your own presence. To remedy this, Alex created a new platform [a new economy] in which the central authority obtains and redistributes “popularity” to specific influencers so that it may incubate initial activity and, as new users join seeing that there is a possible manifest destiny to acquire their own popularity that isn’t glossed over by existing stratification, you carefully decentralize this redistributing mechanism so that it works at scale while keeping that user experience that there is an economy in which you can ‘make it’.
Over time, thanks to Musical.ly’s (now TikTok) light content that requires little commitment to watch, one’s internal narrative falls along the meander the app sets up for them. Now, you might say that lip syncing videos aren’t some marvelous answer to an existential question and scoff off the idea that they could usurp one’s reality. But consider this then. When you were a child and the only things in your life were plastic toys, it didn’t matter to you that they are distinct from your family obligations, they simply filled up the story enough that your life would revolve around looking forward to the next time to stop doing chores and play with your toys.
Even when you’re an adult and you tell yourself that you’d be smart enough to recognize the difference in significance between ‘real world things’ like work and something as artificial as an app. Take a short step back, what denoted your work to be so ‘real’ and different from other things? If you’re financially independent and working on your true passion then congrats to you. For the rest (and majority), the significance of your job is fleeting when you question it like happiness dissipates when you ask the question of “am I happy right now”. Human thought is bizarre and rationality is an easy way to reach some irrational conclusion.
As another case study, consider B2B tools that are someone’s full-time job to be in, like Salesforce or AWS. The revops or devops person may think they’re simply treading at the surface and only approaching the dashboards they live in functionally to do their job. This is a bit difficult to sustain when your profession (either to meet expectations or as part of the stress of working at a startup) requires you to truly tether into these tools to keep up with demand and when this one silly piece of software literally determines your value as an employee. There are certainly economics surrounding build-vs-buy or user-acquisition-cost that provide other ways at interpolating the value of these tech incumbents but there still remains this inseparability at the conscious level for the person who’s job it is to fully understand it.
Without painting everything as simply being cybernetics or reinforcing feedback loops, the takeaway from this is to identify or build a person’s internal scaffolds. Or, if you are looking to understand your own behaviors, try to identify your usage patterns in certain apps and understand how much internal programming it is doing or has done.