This book is really two books. The first (Part I -- The New Capitalist Frontier) describes the changing ways that businesses are improving the value and cost of providing goods and services, by doing just what is needed and in a more pleasant way. This eliminates a lot of waste and inefficiency. Also, business has usually provided poor service, so competition is shifting into making better, more memorable service the key element. That book is clearly a five star book. Read all of it.
The second book (Part II -- Enclosing the Cultural Commons) focuses on concentration of services being provided globally by fewer and fewer players. These global giants try to find the lowest common denominator in order to expand consumption. On the other hand, it all costs money, and most people in the world cannot afford these services. Does this create a loss for all? That's one fundamental question raised here. Unfortunately, the book focuses on the pessimistic side and fails to consider inherent counterbalances. The second fundamental question is whether 'virtual' experiences (whether on-line or in other forms) harms perception to such an extent that creativity and connection are lost at a more basic level. I rated this part of the book at 3 stars because it was an incomplete analysis, and had few recommendations. The author would have been better off writing two books and developing both properly, than in combining both. You can get most of what you need from the second part in the last chapter in the book. Then you can decide if you want to read the rest of that part.
Let me address some of the author's concerns in the second part. Skip this part of my review if you are not interested in these issues.
The book seems to ignore the role that family plays in establishing values, cultural norms, and in creating focus. The family does not appear in this book. With more ways for the family unit to be effective with one another, we actually have the potential for an age of enhanced 'authentic' living in our family units.
The author also seems to give any credit to the idea that with technology costs plummeting there is no reason why access to the new forms of service may not become more universal than in the industrial economy. For example, there should be enough money to provide funds for the equivalent of electronic libraries in any community that has any way to tax its citizens. These should be one form of universal access. Charitable grants can provide much of the rest (in the same way that Andrew Carnegie helped establish the broadscale use of community public libraries).
Next, he ignores the fact that electronic storage makes it easier to capture and maintain diverse cultural influences than ever before. As one bit of evidence, look at the proliferation of personal Web sites and their individuality. These electronic scrapbooks would not have existed before the Internet, even in paper form. Scholars and marketers will be reaching out ever more broadly to find what is unique and helpful in other cultures. Those influences will then be quickly brought into mass culture, where they will provide more benefit than they could as isolated cultures.
Finally, there are many benefits of a more common world culture. It provides the basis of better understanding, more ways to share information and knowledge, greater recognition of important problems, and improved effectiveness in resolving those problems. The failure of the Tower of Babel kept diversity going, but at a high price after the ability to communicate with one another was lost.
When the Industrial Age began, many argued that important aspects of rural life would soon be lost. An example related to the close relation between humans and their horses. Yet there are more horses in the United States today than there were before the Industrial Age began. Humans seek out 'authentic' experiences that have more meaning for them, regardless of how the whole economy evolves. For example, in this age of mass-produced commodity culture, fine art museum attendance is rapidly growing.
Conversely, capitalism seems to be more effective than government in solving most problems that humans have. The book seems to suggest that we need an expanded role for government, just at the time that government is starting to shrivel away because of its ineffectiveness. This is clearly a Luddite argument by the author against the experience economy.
Frankly, (and as the author points out) less and less work will be required to provide basic goods and services in the future. People will be healthier and will live longer. If we do not find more interesting things for people to do, life will be poorer. Authentic struggles will be harder to find, so simulated ones will be more valuable. In the same way that a fine novel can stimulate better character, why can't new forms of experience do the same thing?
When you are done reading this book, ask yourself what experiences with biological and cultural diversity you would like to have. Then consider how you can most enjoyably experience those. If you act on those impulses and thoughts, you will have solved Mr. Rifkin's problem for him. And he will have done you a service by raising the question. That is a good example of an experience economy working well.
Live long, prosper, and enjoy your experiences while being enriched by them!