Sitting before me is a copy of Jeremy Rifkin’s new book, The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life Is a Paid-for Experience. Rifkin gave me this book, so consequently I feel that I own it. It is not leased or shared, and does not come with any type of service agreement. I can read it, mark it up, give it away or throw it away, and I can do it all on my own time.

Yet according to Rifkin, ownership and free time are two phenomena that are increasingly — he would say alarmingly — rare in today’s experiental service-oriented cyberspace economy.

Rifkin, the author of such books as The End of Work and The Biotech Century, puts it this way: "As we move into the new technologies of the 21st century, we are moving from markets to networks, and from sellers and buyers exchanging property to servers and clients accessing each other’s resources. We are shifting from an economy based on the exchange of property as the essential commodity, to an economy based on the short-term access to experiences."

Consider car leasing, says Rifkin. Today in the U.S., one out of every three autos and trucks is leased by consumers rather than purchased. Car companies use leasing as a marketing mechanism rather than a financing mechanism, for reasons that have to do with changes in the concept of ownership and the buyer/seller contract. "If Ford sells me a car, then I only have a relationship with Ford at the time the sale is negotiated," says Rifkin. "But if Ford leases me a car, the company has commodified my time 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They have set up a relationship over time, and by doing that, they are more likely to keep me as a part of their community." As for the customers, they are getting short-term access to a product without having to buy it. "People want to pay for the experience of driving, not for the auto itself," Rifkin says.

Companies realize "there is very little margin in the simple transaction of goods because there is overcapacity against ineffective demand in every industry," he adds. "Wang was the great case study. They kept selling boxes so they went out of business. IBM and others quickly understood that they had to move from selling boxes to being a service provider. So now the service division of IBM creates relationships with clients, and they commodify those relationships over time."

In business circles, the new operative term is LTV – Lifetime Value of the Customer, "the theoretical measure of how much a human being is worth if every moment of his or her life were to be commodified in one form or another in the commercial sphere," says Rifkin. "Companies are not interested in selling things but in networks, memberships, subscriptions, leases and retainers. It’s access over acquisitions, networks over markets."

In the age of access, Rifkin adds, "I’s intellectual property that counts. Intellectual property is never exchanged. It’s owned by the supplier and licensed out."

To better prepare for this new economy, companies are shrinking inventories, leasing equipment, outsourcing major functions and getting rid of as much bricks and mortar as they can. "Within a few years everything will be outsourced except core mission," Rifkin says.

Nike, he notes in his book, is a perfect example of these new commercial forces at work. "Nike is a virtual company. While the public thinks of it as a manufacturer of athletic footware, it is really a research and design studio with a sophisticated marketing formula and distribution mechanism. It owns no factories, machines, equipment or real estate to speak of. Instead it has established an extensive network of suppliers in Southeast Asia who produce its shoes and other gear." Nike also outsources much of its advertising and marketing operations. These days no one wants to be GM, says Rifkin. Everyone wants to be Nike.

This new age of access has both upsides and downsides, and Rifkin, president of The Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, D.C., and a teacher in Wharton’s Executive Education Advanced Management Program, documents both in his book. One upside he notes is an increase in the number of gainsharing arrangements in which companies begin to co-manage a customer’s operations, improving its performance and profit, and sharing in the gains. It’s a strategy that should have widespread appeal as companies increasingly realize that little or no money is to be made in pure sales.

Rifkin points specifically to gainsharing examples in the health care industry involving Baxter Healthcare and Eli Lilly. In Baxter’s case, the company has an arrangement with Duke University Medical Center whereby it manages the entire cost of Duke’s surgical supplies and guarantees an annual ceiling on Duke’s expenditures in return for a co-manager’s fee. Both parties share in any savings that the arrangement realizes.

In Eli Lilly’s case, the company has a program where it assumes responsibility for all of a patient’s care, with the emphasis on keeping that individual as "well" as possible. Assuming then that a well patient needs fewer drugs (and less medical attention), how does Eli Lilly make money? By sharing the cost savings with HMOs and insurance companies, according to Rifkin. "When you are commodifying a relationship to keep people well all the time, you have a lower margin but higher volume because you are working with millions of people on a lifetime relationship. Instead of profit transactions in a market between seller and buyer you are sharing the savings in a network between servers and clients. It’s a whole new way of doing business."

There are of course downsides to this era of "hypercapitalism." the major drawback being that "one day we wake up and find that every relationship we have is contractual and commercial, and there is no more room for the rest of our lives. We only have 24 hours in the day. But the entrepreneurial ability to imagine ways of commodifying our time — through memberships, leases, subscriptions, etc. — is unlimited. I ask businesspeople who come to Wharton whether they feel that more and more of their day-to-day life, and their family’s day-to-day life, is spent in commercial and contractual relationships, and are they bothered by that. They all say yes."

Which leads to Rifkin’s next thesis — that we are moving from industrial to cultural capitalism, where the big players are no longer Boeing, General Motors, Texaco or Sears, but Bertelsmann, Sony, AOL-Time Warner, Disney and News Corp. What are they selling? "Access to culture. As we move into the 21st century, these giant global networks and media companies are mining cultural resources around the world, repackaging them as personal entertainment and selling them in networks, Rifkin says. "It’s not just about film. It’s destination entertainment centers, global travel and tourism, theme parks, sports, gambling and games. The technologies involved are all designed to move us towards full-blown cultural capitalism.

What up until now has been a rich cultural diversity – where culture is a "shared experience, a coming together in communion around common values" – is "being packaged, commodified, reduced to homogonized global operations in the business community," Rifkin says. "The capitalism system is commodifying human time itself. It is not interested in selling to consumers in markets but in developing relationships for a lifetime."

If you are a financial services provider, says Rifkin, you can’t compete with e-commerce in selling stocks but you can provide complete financial planning services, including yearly business plans, personal budgeting plans, retirement income plans, estate planning, tax and accounting services, and legal assistance. The client becomes increasingly dependent on the "expert" agent, and the agent, in turn, becomes the "gatekeeper, controlling the many channels of supply and distribution that connect each consumer to the global marketplace and the outside world."

Gatekeepers, in fact, are everywhere, especially with regard to the Internet. "The world’s leading entertainment, software and telecommunications companies, aware of the commercial potential of being the gatekeepers, have positioned themselves at the entry point to the new world of e-commerce and are buying up the more successful access providers and search engine companies," notes Rifkin in his book. "They realize that whoever controls the gates to cyberspace exercises vast potential control over people’s day-to-day lives."

Not that this is all necessarily bad, Rifkin says. What’s needed is balance, so that we aren’t "trapped in a world we don’t want."

One area he is particularly worried about is education. Every school, Rifkins says, is adding computers and software in order to wire their students for cyberspace. "But parents and teachers are getting increasingly concerned that as kids spend more and more time behind a screen they are spending less time socializing with others, and more time alone…They may have broader contacts and connections through the Internet, but these connections are more facile and less intimate. The risk is that these kids at some point won’t be able to create meaningful relationships in ‘real time.’"

Consumers, however, are not helpless victims in this progression into hypercapitalism. "None of this is a fait accompli," Rifkin says. "I think we will start seeing the beginnings of a reaction against the idea that one’s life is simply a commercial enterprise.

"The bottom line for business is we have to understand that the idea that the market is the primary agent of life is misunderstood," Rifkin notes. "Economists believe that if you have a strong economy you have a strong culture. That is absolutely wrong. What you realize in cultural anthropology is that culture always precedes commerce. Communities always precede markets. It is essential for this new age of access to understand that the commercial arena is a derivative institution, as is government. People first establish social meaning, shared exchanges, social capital, and then they set up trade, markets and governments. You can’t do it the other way."

Everyone assumes that having access to the portals of cyberspace is the only reality worth having, Rifkin adds. "But it’s not just a matter of having access to these global networks. The question is what kind of access do we want. It shouldn’t be access to commercial, commodified relationships in cyberspace. There are other worlds we should renew access to — community, culture, civil society, social relationships, intimacy. How do human beings establish intimacy in cyberspace? Marketing people talk about customer bonding and shared communities of interest. Those are oxymorons."

At the end of his book, Rifkin says that the age of access will force each of us to consider "how we want to restructure our most basic relationships to one another…It’s not a question just of who gains access but rather what types of experiences and worlds of engagement are worth seeking and having access to. The answer to that question will determine the nature of the society we will create for ourselves in the 21st century."