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Tech Books: Ownership giving way to concept of access, author says

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The Age of Access: The New Culture Of Hypercapitalism, Where All Of Life Is A Paid-for Experience (Tarcher/Putnam, $24.95) by Jeremy Rifkin

Jeremy Rifkin, social critic and lecturer at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the very foundation of economic life - the market exchange of property between sellers and buyers - is fast becoming obsolete. In his latest book (he's also written The End of Work and The Biotech Century), Mr. Rifkin presents convincing arguments that bolster this theory. In fact, he shows that it's more than a theory - it's already happening.

The concept of property and ownership is fading, he says. Consumers will own "access" instead of owning property, he argues. Mr. Rifkin sees examples everywhere: outsourcing, theme parks, virtual reality games and automobile leasing, to name a few.

In particular, the author examines Walt Disney's planned community of Celebration, Fla., "where buying a house is merely the ticket to gaining access to a prepackaged lifestyle." In sharp contrast to the conventional idea of purchasing a home, the promotional copy devotes less attention to the features of the structures themselves and focuses on the lifestyle that residents will experience.

The Disneyized community of Celebration is not an isolated case but part of a tidal wave of change sweeping over commerce, Mr. Rifkin says. This tidal wave will affect society to the point that people may one day wake up to find every activity they engage in has become a "paid-for "experience, the author contends.

Mr. Rifkin says that the capitalist journey, which began with making commodities of space and things, is ending by making commodities of time and cultural experience. A new hyper-capitalism is emerging.

In this brave new world, people may buy enlightenment and play, grooming and grace, and everything in between in the form of purchased experiences.

The Age of Access is a stunning book. For sheer originality and scope of vision, it's a mind-churning experience. Mr. Rifkin goes out on a limb, succeeding admirably. Those who seek an eye-opening glimpse of the future will find this book a solid addition to their collections.

Big names reveal nothing new

Fast Forward: America's Leading Experts Reveal How the Internet is Changing Your Life (William Morrow, $24) by Alfred C. Sikes, with Ellen Pearlman

The subtitle says it all: Alfred Sikes, former Federal Communications Commission chairman, has assembled a "power panel" of 24 Americans from a variety of disciplines to examine the effect of the Internet on our daily lives.

The experts include former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. C. Everett Koop, founder and chief executive officer of monster.com Jeff Taylor, editor of Release 1.0 Esther Dyson and other high-profile figures.

The panel focuses on 10 topics: family, health, investing, education, business, careers, shopping, entertainment, privacy and the future. The preface says the experts "provide a fascinating, authoritative look into the present and the future of Net life." Not quite. The format is rather pedestrian, and the expert opinions are less than dazzling. If this were a lecture hall, half the audience would be asleep and the other half staring blankly into space. If it's possible for a book to be a monotone, this one qualifies.

The ground covered by the panel has already been covered many times in many ways. There are no startling revelations here, only a few mildly interesting passages that aren't enough to rescue the book from mediocrity.

Even the premise is nothing new; one can find a whole slew of similar books. Only the most devout, hard-core futurists will benefit from shelling out money for this book.

Delving into the digital divide

Digital Divide: Computers and Our Children's Future (TV Books, $24) by David Bolt and Ray Crawford

As the hot buzz phrase, digital divide is burrowing its way into the consciousness of the average person. Unfortunately, many people, while familiar with the phrase, don't really understand its meaning.

So what does it mean? And most importantly, what causes a digital divide and what can be done to close the chasm? Authors Bolt, a film producer, and Crawford, an author/editor, address the issues in this companion book to the recent PBS series of the same name (available on tape). They describe their work as "the first book to critically examine the role that technology plays in widening socioeconomic differences in American society." The authors assert that four topics are central to understanding the divide: race, gender, education and employment. Each of those topics is the focus of a separate chapter, and every chapter is packed full of URLs, statistics and other information.

Where does this so-called divide occur? Along many fronts, the authors write. For instance, it's obvious that lower-income families are less likely to own computers than their richer counterparts.

They point to statistics that girls are denied equal access to computers. As technology becomes more pervasive, the gaps will widen and become even more obvious, the authors conclude.

The book targets the huge variances in computer education in schools and zeroes in on teachers who do not even know how to use the equipment, much less integrate it into their curriculums.

This is a thought-provoking book peppered with vivid, real-life examples and plenty of related resources for those who want to further explore the issues on their own.
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