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Paris, Monday, January 17, 2000

The New Capitalism Is About Turning Culture Into Commerce

By Jeremy Rifkin Los Angeles Times Service
LOS ANGELES - A great transformation is occurring in the nature of capitalism. After hundreds of years of converting physical resources into goods, the primary means of generating wealth now involves transforming cultural resources into paid-for personal experiences and entertainments.

The announcement of the merger between America Online and Time Warner underscores the shift to a new form of hypercapitalism based on commodifying human time.

AOL-Time Warner, Disney, Viacom and Sony Corp. are not just media companies. They are global arbiters of access to a vast array of cultural experiences, including global travel and tourism, theme cities and parks, destination entertainment centers, wellness, fashion and cuisine, professional sports and games, music, film, television, book publishing and magazines.

The capitalist journey is ending with the commodification of human culture itself.

Transnational media companies with communications networks that span the globe are mining local cultural resources in every part of the world and repackaging them as cultural commodities and entertainments. The top 20 percent of the world's population now spends almost as much of its income accessing cultural experiences as buying manufactured goods and basic services.

By controlling the pipelines that people use to communicate with one another, as well as shaping much of the cultural content that is filmed, broadcast on television or sent over the Internet, companies like AOL-Time Warner are able to affect the experiences of people everywhere. There is no precedent in history for this kindof overarching control of human communications.

Social critics are beginning to ask what will happen to the rich cultural diversity that makes up the ecology of human existence, when a handful of information, entertainment and telecommunications companies control much of the cultural content that makes up our daily lives.

The new forces of cultural capitalism could end up devouring our remaining cultural resources - from traditional music and dance to local festivals and sporting events, to native food and cuisine - by repackaging them into short-lived commercial entertainments, paid amusements and purchased spectacles.

Losing access to the rich cultural diversity of thousands of years of human experience could be as devastating to our future ability to survive and flourish as losing our remaining biological diversity.

When the culture itself is absorbed into the economy, only commercial bonds will be left to hold society together. The critical question in this new Age of Access is whether civilization can even exist when more and more of our relationships outside the family increasingly become a paid-for experience.

While Wall Street is celebrating the new merger, and 20 percent of the world's population is migrating to cyberspace, the rest of humanity still is caught up in the world of physical scarcity. More than half of the human race has never made a telephone call.

The world is fast developing into two distinct civilizations: those living inside the electronic gates of cyberspace, and those living on the outside.

The new, global digital communications networks, because they are so all-encompassing and comprehensive, have the effect of creating a new and totalizing social space, a second earthly sphere above mother Earth.

The migration of human commerce and social life to the realm of cyberspace isolates one part of the human population from the rest in ways never before imaginable. The great schism, in the coming age, is between those whose lives are increasingly taken up in cyberspace and those who will never have access to this new realm of human existence.

More than 20 years ago, the Harvard sociologist Daniel Bell made the observation that in the coming era, control over communication services would be a source of power, and access to communication would be a condition of freedom. The AOL-Time Warner merger brings us a step closer to that world.

The writer is author of the forthcoming ''The Age of Access: The New Culture of Hypercapitalism Where All of Life Is a Paid-For Experience.'' He contributed this comment to the Los Angeles Times.