It is easy to become so exasperated with Jeremy Rifkin's style that one misses the quality of his work. Rifkin was born to argue and advocate.
He lives in permanent risk of tipping into overstatement of the kind that can all too quickly become the stock in trade of the pundit and guru.
Yet The Age of Access is Rifkin at his best, an ingenious and impassioned synthesis of economic and social trends. Although little of the content is new, the research done by Rifkin's helper John Akland was meticulous and compendious, from trends in international tourism to leasing schemes for corporate assets and research in genetics. Out of Akland's raw material Rifkin has spun an illuminating insight into how we should understand the modern economy.
The Age of Access begins with some characteristic Rifkinisms. In the past Rifkin has traded heavily on gloom to get his readers' juices going.
The End of Work warned that we were moving into an era of permanent structural unemployment as traditional jobs were downsized. The Biotech Century was an impassioned warning against the perils of genetics in the hands of corporations. The Age of Access seems to set the same tone as Rifkin warns us that we are moving into an era where all culture and human relations are reduced to commodities and that commerce is the feeble glue holding civilisation together.
Yet most of the book is given over to a novel analysis of the development of the modern US economy that ties together two themes. The first is the rise of the service and experience economy. We do not value commodities as things in themselves but for the quality of the experience they provide us with. As Rifkin puts it: we are selling one another experiences that moisten the eyes or quicken the pulse.
This is not a new theme. Fifteen years ago two sociologists, Jonathan Gershuny and Ian Miles, then at the Science Policy Research Unit at Sussex, produced a detailed analysis of the rise of what they called the new service economy. Much of their analysis is echoed by Rifkin: manufactured products are just another way to deliver service: we are all part of a giant service economy, whether we work in a factory or in a restaurant.
A couple of years ago Joseph Pine and James Gilmore argued in The Experience Economy that this should be at the heart of corporate strategy. Companies should focus on the quality of the experience they give to consumers, whether they are making a car or selling insurance.
Rifkin's ingenuity is to explore one of the consequences of the new service economy: the impact it has on the way we own products and assets. This is the second theme. If we value houses, cars and machinery for what they allow us to do, it does not always make sense for us to own these assets. Instead, we should make use of them as and when we need them.
In the old economy, having and owning assets made sense. But in the new one, Rifkin argues, we should shift to just-in-time ownership. Why own a car outright rather than leasing it when you need it? Why should a company own a building when it might want to transfer work elsewhere or cut staff numbers? Fixed assets can become a liability in an economy swept by waves of change and innovation. Most companies in the US have moved to leasing machinery and buildings rather than owning them outright.
This shift to just-in-time ownership is what makes access matter so much.
What counts is not whether we can own assets but whether we can have access to infrastructures, such as telecommunications, and knowledge assets, such as genetic code, when we need them. This highlights the danger of the new economy: access to these key resources will be controlled by large corporations, to whom the ordinary citizen is likely to have to pay access fees.
When I started reading The Age of Access I felt exasperated by Rifkin's over-the-top style. But by the end I was intrigued and enlivened by his verve and imagination.
Charles Leadbeater's book Living on Thin Air is published by Penguin; a revised version, retitled The Weightless Society, will be published in the US next month by Texere.