Something Unique

Experience Goods - The Vocabulary of Good Social Life/8

by Luigino Bruni 

Published in Avvenire on November 17, 2013

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We are witnessing the emergence of a new demand for participation in the consumption, saving and use of goods. There is a crucial difference, for example, considering the Internet 10-15 years ago: now it is inhabited by websites and email, and the web of social media and the Apps; all in all there is a greater involvement and attention-seeking for us, inhabitants of the network. Similarly, the TV today not only broadcasts programmes for the 'viewers', but asks us to vote for the best singer or player. And the interesting thing is that people participate: they invest time to say their opinion and to feel an active part of a new form of communication. All this serves them to have an experience. 

Many devote time, and much of it, to enrich or write entries anonymously for Wikipedia (the encyclopaedia of the web), or to improve free software. It is as if we were creating new 'squares', where people tend to return in a different way and with pleasure to talk, to waste time selflessly. This is an ambivalent phenomenon for certain, but ambivalence can also be the start of productive debate.

The mere consumption of goods would never be enough for people. Symbol-loving and ideological animals as we are, we have always asked for more from our goods: starting from social status to the representation of a better future while living in a poverty-stricken present. Through these goods we wanted to talk, tell stories, tell about ourselves to others, and listen to others talk. To experience. Some goods are so tied to an experience that economists have called them "experience goods".These are the ones that we can understand and evaluate only after having made a direct and personal experience. Almost all cultural and touristic products are listed among the experience goods. I can only determine whether it was worth buying a ticket for a museum when I visit it, not before; I understand if the price paid for a weekend at a farm holiday house was reasonable only when I am on the spot, and I can see the scenery, the environment and meet the hosts. The market does not like this uncertainty, and tries to offer us some decisive elements to assess a hotel or restaurant ex ante. And so the websites sporting more and more pictures, and the growing importance of customer reviews have become so important that we risk seeing the birth of an uncivilized market for the sale of reviews, both positive and negative (on competitors).

And this is where some debates of central importance develop to understand the evolution of our economic and social system. First of all, as regards experience goods, the contour elements in them are the ones that appear to be decisive. I can have the most beautiful archaeological site in the world, but without a whole functional territorial system around (transport, hotel ... ) the value of that asset falls, and the value of entire regions drops with it, too. I can find farmhouses in the region of Marche in Italy in excellent 'locations', but if I do not find the style corresponding to the developments of centuries of hospitality which translates into a thousand concrete details, then the value of that vacation disappears or is greatly resized. In these goods one of the most complex and mysterious traits of our market society is included in its purest form. When an Englishman is on holiday in Tuscany or in Andalusia, he is also in search of the intrinsic cultural dimensions that are not mere merchandise. Of course, he knows that the resort and restaurant are typical business enterprises and thus respond to the logic of profit, but the well-being during that vacation, which, sometimes, is the most important part of it, depends mostly on the presence of different cultural contexts. These, in turn are included (but of course!) in the price of that particular hotel and lunch, yet they are not mere merchandise 'produced' by those entrepreneurs to make profit. So much so that the value of attending a real country fair or an authentic historical re-enactment is immensely greater than those artificial, organized folkloristic representations, ordered and paid for by the caterer. In our land there exist, in other words, cultural heritage sites that are authentic public goods (and not private property), accumulated over the centuries that become competitive advantage for our business generating profit. We should look after them, because much of our economic strength and civil present depends on them, which is even more true for the future.

A second area is the so-called critical and responsible consumption. What brings us to the small shops and the special fair trade shops is primarily the search for an experience. This is why it is essential to talk to those who work there, to be told the many wonderful tales of goods, make the people who produced them 'talk'; maybe to exchange a few words about our capitalism or meet some other clients who share in our experience there and then. The value of this consumption is not contained in the goods only (and in the relations of production which they embody), but also in the interpersonal experience we get when we go to a store, a branch of a bank or to a market. Ethics without experience is just ideology.

Finally, we must be aware that all market goods are becoming instances of real experience.
This is a crucial paradox of contemporary market economy. On the one hand, the market needs to produce a growing mass of goods without too many variations, because the economies of scale and cost requirements lead to mass consumption of goods that are similar to each other for easy reproducing with few variants and low cost in all the world. And this is the direction taken by the companies of the twentieth century. But these companies are now also faced with the opposite trend. Democracy and freedom generate millions of people with different tastes and values, where everyone can be unique and non-assimilable. This is why the big companies that grew big with the mentality of mass consumption must rethink themselves completely. On the one hand we are also attracted by getting exactly that type of computer or mobile phone which is the status symbol; at the same time, however, we would like our PC to have something unique designed personally for me; which means that I would like that the experience that I have with that PC should be unique and only mine, because I am the only me. It is here that intriguing perspectives open up for the industrial and economic near future. Successful businesses, even on a global scale, will be those that are able to put together products that can be sold in increasingly global markets (and today the network makes it possible for small businesses to operate in Madras, Lanciano and Lisbon, too). Above all, however, these products should be able to involve the 'consumer' in an experience in which you do not feel that you are just one of the many anonymous, clone owners and users, but a unique piece. So we understand that we expect a large development of 'DIY' that are more sophisticated than the current ones, made of a blend of standardized goods, technical assistance and our creativity in customizing houses, gardens, websites, and the neighbourhoods and cities of tomorrow. If we look into the ambivalent television market of the latest generation, for example, we can already find something like this, or at least more or less successful attempts in this direction.

When we leave the house to go down into the market places, we seek greater experiences than the things we buy may offer in themselves. Too often, however, the goods do not keep their promises, because the experiences they offer are too poor when compared to our seeking of the infinite. And so, disappointed but able to forget the disappointment of yesterday, we start our economic liturgies every morning, looking for goods, dreams, human relationships and life.

 

Further commentaries by Luigino Bruni in Avvenire are available through the Avvenire Editorial

Translated by Eszter Kató

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