Have we not noticed that experiences have made themselves independent of people?
Musil--The man without qualities (v.1, 158)
When Amartya Sen wrote his famous article "Rational Fools" in 1977, the critique of rational choice theory was well under way making the under-determination of theory by the plurality of conditions for human agency one of its overall targets. (2) Sen argued that failing to meet the conditions of rational choice theory was not due to humans' limited strategic sophistication. On the contrary, it was the lack of sophistication on part of theory instead. Sen placed the notion of commitment at the heart of humans' capabilities to act and in doing so drove a wedge between rational choice's identification of personal choice with personal welfare (i.e. that any choice is based on a rationality of maximizing the gains for personal welfare). Commitments indicated the presence of non-gains-maximizing factors as an important part of human rational behaviour, which was not theorisable in the context of rational choice theory. Sen, therefore, named the anthropological figure presumed in rational choice theory, a rational fool. The figure was a social moron, Sen claimed, because no person could act as if self-interested gains-maximization is the sole preference-ordering principle (Sen 1977, 336). Otherwise this person is most likely lacking the competences needed to act in a social way. Besides the important critique of rational choice theory made in this classic article, a general aspect of Sen's argument should be emphasised. This aspect concerns the intertwining of economic agency and the understanding of the human being, with this being comprising of relations to the world, to other people and the self. Sen's critique of rational choice theory could be rephrased as a request for relevant information about the whole of human experience, as a basis for understanding economic agency. Thus, underscoring some sense of human (economic) agency as influencing any description of (human) economic agency, with the extent of this influence being contested. Implicitly Sen's critique, then, is a critique of the model of human beings that informs rational choice theory, which he sees as narrow-minded and overly rationalistic.
This article will address an allegedly new economic phenomenon, experience economy and focus, in light of the general implications of Sen's critique, on the human economic agency depicted in this economic model. The idea of the experience economy, while not part of mainstream economics, is more a business- or marketing-oriented economics, trying to understand and model how economic agency is more influenced by experiential than by rationalistic conceived factors (Ostergard 2007). It tries, therefore, to incorporate non-economic factors (e.g. symbols or emotions), as part of the informational basis for understanding economics. Just as anthropology and ethnography in the sixties and seventies revolted against the ahistoricity and dehumanisation of the broad theoretical programs of structuralism, and turned to the study of the concrete lived experience instead, a parallel development occurred in the seventies and eighties within consumer studies and business economics. These fields turned from a statistical and quantitative focus on the market-behaviour of people towards a focus on the concrete experience of products. Where the focus on concrete experience in anthropology meant, inter alia, turning to immediacy of experience (Turner and Bruner 1986), performance and action (Bronner 2012), the pragmatics of experience (Abrahams 1985) and hermeneutic-inspired thick descriptions (Geertz 1973), in marketing and business economics it meant turning to everyday consumption practices and consumer experiences, and how these were mediated by the use of cultural symbols (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982), and expressions of consumers' understandings of themselves, which were to be studied in a hermeneutical and phenomenological fashion (Thompson et al, 1989). The next step towards experience economy was taken by Pine and Gilmore in an attempt to try to understand how experiences and experiencing could be a source of additional economic value over and above the value of choosing regular products and the services build around these products (Pine and Gilmore 1999). Specifically, Pine and Gilmore asked about the economic value conferred by choosing the Disneyland or Starbucks experience, instead of going to the local funfair or diner. Why were these cultural and economic phenomena appealing more to the experiential expectations of consumers than something else? And why were consumers willing to pay more for products within these experiential settings than in other settings? Experience economy, then, tries to model how, why and for whom the different experiences created as part of ordinary and extra-ordinary economic practices work. Experience economy is therefore part of what Lofgren has termed "the new economy," which incorporates both new modes of production (the creation of experiences in conjunction with a regular product or service, like going to Starbucks) and "novel forms of consumption and organisation of everyday life, horizons of planning, logistics of mobility, new forms of materialities and sensibilities" (Lofgren 2003, 239). In the words of Jantzen and Rasmussen, two proponents of experience economy, "designing experience economic offerings revolves around manufacturing products the consumer wasn't aware of needing beforehand, but afterwards fails to understand how living without was ever possible" (Jantzen and Rasmussen 2007d, 44). Needless to say, the kind of economic thinking described by Jantzen and Rasmussen affects us all in our everyday economic transactions, making it imperative to analyse critically the relation between human and economic agency.
To show how this works, take the following example of how companies try to influence us in our everyday lives through immersive advertising. It exemplifies a paradigm shift occurring in the tracking of our behaviour through technical devices like iPads, phones and computers. We are used to Google or Facebook tracking our behaviour by storing information about our browsing by means of cookies. A shift has occurred, however, because the means for doing the tracking has become more sophisticated opening up the tracking of physiological and emotional indicators, not just plain text-based search queries. For example, certain new phones can detect your physical state of being through their sensors (e.g. accelerometers, gyrometers, compasses) thereby potentially adjusting for your behaviour. (3) Whereas cookie-tracking technology is not able to differentiate between multiple users of the same computer or device, thereby giving an inaccurate picture of the individual user, this new technology allows companies to advertise in a much more personalised manner (Dwoskin 2013; Morozov 2013). Emotional targeting is a suitable overall name for this emerging marketing technique. As an illustration of this technique, here is an excerpt from a recent patent application by Microsoft:
The computer system monitors online activity of users. The online activity is processed to identify a tone of content the users interact with during a time period. The computer system also receives indications of the users' reactions to the content ... Advertisements are selected for delivery to the users by the computer system ... The computer system delivers the selected advertisements with the highest monetization values to the users that are emotionally compatible (Microsoft 2010).
Notice here that the device records the reactions of the users interacting with content, for example a game, and then targets a strategic place for advertising based on these real-time responses. Which ads get shown, then, depends on the experiences and emotions displayed by the users, not on what is conveyed in the game content itself. Companies are already specialising in this technique by targeting "game players at natural, critical points in game play where they are most receptive to brand messages" (Dwoskin 2014). The following quote is taken from one such company helping other companies with proprietary emotional targeting, "through a suite of proprietary products and analytics, the company delivers immersive brand messages during breakthrough moments (BTMs) within games when people are most receptive to marketing messages. Our ads elicit positive emotions by rewarding users and enhancing the user experience during game play" (Mediabrix 2014). BTM's are, for example, getting a new personal high score, or getting stuck on a specific level. In the latter case a brand can offer to help the player move on to the next level in exchange for viewing a commercial, whereas the former can offer you a reward, for example by using the phone's GPS to give you a free soda to come with a burger meal at a nearby fast food restaurant. Leaving the glow of old-fashioned behaviourism aside, (4) detecting these BTM's is, of course, the special technique of this company, targeting the gamer and creating an emotional attachment to a given brand. Since the technique supposedly helps creating a positive experience and affects some kind of pleasure either by reward or compensation, it exemplifies the assumption of a notion of the (economic) human being similar to the one expressed by Jantzen and Rasmussen above, a being whose needs are created by rewards or compensations. The potential of affecting our everyday lives, both when using and not using technical devices, is immense and indicates the reconfiguration of parts of those socio-economic processes dealing with the daily consumption practices by using the concept of experience as a new instrument (Christensen 2013, 79). Furthermore, as attested by the growing international literature on the subject (eg. O'dell and Billing, 2005; Sundbo and...