Unplugging the Wirehead: Beyond the Experience Economy
Senior Foresight Strategist at Idea Couture Inc.
The experience economy was supposed to liberate us from the doldrums of the business-as-usual world of goods and services. In the experience economy, as veteran consultants Joseph Pine and James H. Gilmore first described it in their seminal book of the same name, companies would mature beyond offering “largely undifferentiated goods and services” and embrace the “staging of experiences” as a new model for economic growth. When a person buys an experience, they wrote, he would be paying “to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages – as in a theatrical play – to engage him in an inherently personal way.”
In the wake of Pine and Gilmore’s clarion call, countless companies created Customer Experience Design teams dedicated entirely to carving economic value out of this new type of offering. And where has all that effort landed us? What is the state of the experience economy over fifteen years after the publication of Pine and Gilmore’s book?
Here we are: still talking about eliciting surprise and delight from consumers as if creating a momentary flashbulb of emotion was a lofty and worthwhile aim. Surprise and delight are the high fructose corn syrup of the experience economy – empty emotional calories that temporarily slake our thirst for meaning without leaving us any more fulfilled.
Here we are: still wracking our brains over how to make our offerings ever more immersive, as if being “absorbed in the moment” was always appropriate, always an unqualified good. Consider advanced dementia, defined by the very experience of constant mental absorption. It’s a devastating condition. So why does it serve as an example for this economy?
Here we are: mired in the question of how to improve customer experience, without taking a moment to ask why we should be bothering in the first place. Because when we don’t ask why, we end up spending inordinate amounts of time and money fiddling with things like “unboxing experience.” Are we really at the point of searching for competitive advantage by shuffling around the inserts in our product’s packaging?
It is not Pine and Gilmore who are to blame for the current banal and hollow state of the experience economy. In fact, they foresaw all of this. They knew that experiences were not some limitless fountain of economic value, and that they would become commoditized just like any other offering. “Been there, done that” was to be the expression of someone burned out on the same old tricks of experience design.
These commoditized experiences – all signifier, nothing signified – are prototypical examples of what science fiction writers and futurists call “wire-heading”: the fulfillment of the ever-present urge to plug ourselves into sophisticated experience machines and ride out eternity with absolute detachment. Wireheading has even been advanced as a plausible reason why we haven’t made contact with intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Maybe they’re all too busy wrapped up in experiencing an eternal, cosmic orgasm to return our calls.
A wirehead is the experience economy’s perfect customer. And wireheading is not as far-fetched a concept as it might initially seem. In fact, for some time we’ve been able to create perfect wireheads under laboratory conditions. Rats, given the ability to directly stimulate their pleasure centers by pushing a lever, will push that lever over and over until they die, ignoring even food or sex for the privilege. Experience, experience, experience.
If you want to see the current state of wireheading in humans, observe the Oculus Rift. It is, by all accounts, the most immersive (there’s that word again) piece of technology ever created. Inside the Rift, everything feels very, very real. You can ride thrilling virtual roller coasters and explore spine-tingling haunted houses without ever having to get up out of your chair. You can go to a thumping, futuristic, Buddhist-themed nightclub – no actual friends required! You can even have your head guillotined in a simulated French Revolution-era public execution, without having taken on any real political risks.
Rift experiences are terrifying, exhilarating, emotional, overwhelming. But if any of it gets to be too much for you, just remind yourself: none of it is real. And if that doesn’t work, you can always whip the headset off and the whole thing goes away. Young children who cover their eyes expecting that if they can’t see you then you can’t see them might not be so far off the mark in the mature experience economy; starting with the Oculus Rift, we can have a world dictated by self-centered, child-like physics, if we want it. And some will.
If we’ve become mired in the experience economy, it’s probably because for at least half a century we’ve been convinced that consciousness is the defining feature of humanity. And what is consciousness? It’s that thing inside of each of us that feels the redness of red, the sweetness of sugar, and the melody of birdsong. It is the subject of all our experiences, and the target audience of the experience economy. (Next time you’re in a bookstore, take note of how many books make reference to consciousness in both the Science and Spirituality sections.)
But consciousness is really only a tiny sliver of what composes us. Here’s a thought experiment that demonstrates why. Imagine you decide to make a trip to Switzerland to climb Monte Rosa in the Swiss Alps. You save and plan for months before ever getting on the plane. Once there, you have to navigate the winding roads and the local culture to secure your final supplies. The climb itself is gruelling, but you eventually find yourself standing at the summit, surveying the vastness around you in slack-jawed wonder.
Back in my cozy home, I put on an Oculus Rift Plus and load up Monte Rosa Summit Simulator. The experience I have inside is indistinguishable from the one you had on the summit of the actual mountain. The view is astonishing and awe inspiring. The feelings that wash over me bring me to tears.
I paid fifty bucks for my experience. You dedicated months of your life and thousands of dollars to yours. Did you just get royally ripped off? If not, what made your experience different, more meaningful?
The value of your experience in the Alps was in the potential it contained to transform you. Even though our experiences of the summit were indistinguishable, my sojourn into the Oculus Rift Plus can’t even pretend to equal the dedication, courage, will, and imagination that you had to summon to complete your journey.
Again, Pine and Gilmore saw this clearly. Experiences, they thought, would eventually become as commoditized and boring as a brown cardboard box. They are after all, just as inert in a sense; they last for as long as they last, and then thrill is gone and the impressions left by the experience succumb to the vagaries of memory. But experiences that fundamentally transform people’s character open up an entire new realm of value, both for customers and businesses. “Indeed, with transformations,” wrote Pine and Gilmore, “the economic offering of a business is the change in the individual person or company as a result of what the offering business does. With transformations, the customer is the product!”
We’ve been consciousness overachievers for too long. There’s a vast space of human potentialities that businesses have largely missed by focusing on products, services, and experiences. Transformations – which require us to do things like take risks, humble ourselves, exhibit bravery and steadfastness and kindness, and explore our depths as human beings – are the route that will take us beyond the experience economy. And in a world where everything else is commoditized, transformations may be the only thing left worth paying for.
So unplug the wirehead and join the Transformation Economy; make humans, not feelings or desires, your customers.
*Jayar La Fontaine es Senior Foresight Strategist at Idea Couture Inc.Toronto, Ontario, Canadá.