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The State of the Human Economy

Digging through a few conference notes from the CTAM Research Conference of February 2007, I uncovered a few things I had jotted down while listening to Shari Swan, founder of Streative Branding and former global marketing executive at Reebok. Swan simply presented a timeline of human economic history, but I found it provocative enough then, and still enough now to share with you today.

Let me present my graphic version of the timeline (Swan’s didn’t look like this), and after you give it some thought and consideration, we can then discuss it:

Timeline of economies

Tribal Economy

I don’t recall that Swan went into detail about the earliest phases of human development, but my cursory knowledge of civilization between 100,000 and 10,000 BC would evoke images of Neanderthal men, women, and children using stone tools to fashion crude stone weapons – most significantly the spear tip. The society would be organized around an extended family or perhaps a close-knit handful of families that we would now call a “tribe”. The tribe would have a self-contained economy, and the most common interaction between tribes would be of a defensive or violent nature. Food would be gained through the “hunt and gather” technique, and homesteads would not be permanent structures because wild game migrates with the seasons. Sitting in our comfortable, heated homes with full refrigerators, it is very difficult to even imagine human life in the Tribal Economy.

Rural Economy

Then, around 10,000 BC, a revolution in civilization transformed the economy. People learned to grow crops that could be consumed, stored for off-season consumption, or traded to another tribe to keep them from attacking your tribe or to obtain some surplus product they had in their possession. This was the Rural Economy.

Industrial Economy

At about the time the crude steam engine was being made more practical and efficient (the years between 1700 and 1775), we can say mankind’s economy was transformed once again. Mechanical turning of wheels and milling tools was no longer dependent on horses walking in a circle or the cascading water of a mill race, so industrial manufacturing and processing could be located closer to centers of labor, resources, and distribution, and thus was born the Industrial Economy.

Consumer Economy

Swan suggests that after 200 years of the Industrial Economy’s accomplishments, manufacturing things that couldn’t be made by hand under the Rural Economy (railroad tracks, locomotives, automobiles, airplanes, and hydroelectric dams, to name a few), civilization graduated to a Consumer Economy, all about the household or the individual acquiring things that made life easier or symbolized status. This was the age of television sets, frozen dinners, Barbie dolls, and annual stylistic alterations to automobiles so that consumers would just have to buy “the new model”. It’s important to understand the Consumer Economy (and don’t turn to Wikipedia for help – its article about the Consumer Economy is abysmal), not only because it has so indelibly shaped our present urban and suburban culture, but because we are arguably still in it. More on that in a moment, though.

Human Economy – are we there yet?

Swan’s talk at the CTAM conference was not so much focused on this overall timeline upon which I’ve expended so many words taken from my crude understanding of each era, but rather Swan spent most of her presentation elaborating on the characteristics of the most recent stop on that timeline: the Human Economy. I wish I had taken better notes, however, it was clear that Swan characterizes the Human Economy as placing a capital and cultural emphasis on bettering and enriching the person. (Again, you will be lost if you turn to Wikipedia for a definition of “human economy”, which is a quaint irony, if you ask me.) Symbols of the Human Economy might include a fully booked yoga class at the local YMCA, the ever-increasing popularity of “continuing education” programs for adults and seniors at a community college or via distance learning, and of course, volunteer efforts that assist those less fortunate than they who provide the helping hand.

There’s more to it than just this, though. From what I can tell over the past 5 or 10 years, the phrase “human economy” has become inextricably intertwined with the concepts of “sustainability”, “green living”, and the “human ecology”. With wind energy fields springing up in the marketing nexus of Atlantic City, New Jersey, and solar energy farms sprouting up in erstwhile oil-rich Texas, one would be hard-pressed to argue that we are not in the midst of an economic shift of some degree. But, is it transformative? Would we be correct to say that the Consumer Economy (or, for that matter, even the Industrial Economy) are fully behind us, even in the most advanced American urban centers like San Francisco, Boston, or Portland? I would argue not. In other words, I am here to say that Shari Swan may have prematurely placed our society into a Human Economic era that we have not yet truly entered.

I’m willing to be called a curmudgeon or a cynic for saying this, but I do not believe that a significant number of us are dedicating our time and resources toward “bettering and enriching the human”. Though many of us would like to be doing this (or imagine ourselves to be doing so), the Consumer Economy still has us trapped – more than ever – in debt, in paycheck-to-paycheck budgeting, and indeed in federally mandated bail-outs of entire consumer-driven industries. I think we’re still mostly stuck in the Consumer Economy, and we need look no further than the sub-prime lending fiasco, or the debacle of the Iraq War which went off with nary a protest from American citizens who might bother to ask how we’d pay for such a war, or the fact that is now most notorious for enabling sexual prostitution, possibly even of minors – and our legal system is forced to exempt that website from punishment or even self-restraint, thanks to a 1997 law that our Congress passed without really understanding that the Internet is just another channel of publishing.

The proof is in the Internet

In fact, I think the Internet is the best proof that ours is still a Consumer Economy and not a Human Economy. If you look at the 10 most popular websites, four are devoted to ad-supported search and e-mail communications (Google, Yahoo!, MSN & MSN Live); and three are devoted to consumer transactions (eBay, Amazon, and Microsoft); leaving just three that could be described as oriented toward the Human Economy (Facebook, YouTube, and Wikipedia). Take Facebook. It has surged over the past two years to become the # 3 website by including more and more folks of my generation rather than the Britney Spears generation, bringing together long-lost high school classmates and former co-workers to talk about what’s important to them. But, what seems to be actually important to them? Apparently, the current rage is playing viral marketing games like Mafia Wars , FarmVille, Farm Town, and Sorority Life, where enterprising code developers are capitalizing on the unwitting willingness of consumers to open their wallets to feel connected. Sorority Life offers the following for your human betterment:

“Create the perfect look for your avatar. Hit the mall for the latest fashions. And get a job to pay off your shopping obsession.”

Farm Town’s value proposition to the consumer?

“Design, grow and maintain your farm and even send gifts to your friends. Play now and share the fun with everyone!”

This is not a return to the Rural Economy, folks.

What are your thoughts? Have we entered the Human Economy phase of civilization? Are we still in the Consumer Economy? Is the Human Economy something we should be striving for? Or, is there a better way to model our human timeline? I look forward to your comments below.

Image credits


14 Responses to “The State of the Human Economy”

I have to agree strongly with you on this one, Greg. If we did not have an economy so dependent on consumer spending, we would not be in quite the mess that we presently are. From your description of Swan’s description of “human economy”, it sounds more like a hopeful prediction for the future than any realistic description of the present state of things. It has a very Star Trek-type feel to it.
Jon Awbrey
Let’s not talk of Wiki-Φerengi …
Jon Awbrey
Siriusly though, beginning a couple of decades ago my hooman ears were often bent by many conversations concerning the way that succeeding waves of revolution in human culture, industry, and technology had impacted, were impacting, and might impact our institutions of higher learning, not to mention the hapless if intrepid souls who pass through their portals, whether as consumers or producers of “knowledge”, much less to mention the rarer birds who chase that elusive flutterby of “wisdom”.
Ironically enough, the article I had in mind to pass along at this point is locked behind a JSTOR gate to which I am short a key as we speak, so let me just link to what looks like a reasonable facsimile of the same essay:
Susan M. Awbrey and David K. Scott, “The Third Transformation :
Universities into the Next Century”
Jonas D. Rand
We are still in the consumer economy, in my opinion, but to extend your analogy with the Social Web, somewhat participatory (in regards to commenting) noncommercial news sites like Common Dreams and Truthout are increasing in popularity, as well as networks like Indymedia/IMC. Amy Goodman has analyzed the transformation of the mass media into a forum for debate on political issues, on a scale of public participation never seen before. Still, though, the popularity of commercial media is strong, as is the monopoly held by major corporations like News Corp over the media. Additionally, as is pointed out at the end of this article, the majority of content on these sites is pure drivel, like what is mostly found on Facebook. I have an account under a fake name to see Wikipedians’ friends lists, and I happen to see some of the babble that takes place there. It’s a cesspool over there.
Jonas D. Rand
To correct: this was not an “analogy” with the Web, but rather the usage of the Web as an example of the consumer economy still being in use. The term “analogy” is incorrect in describing what this article says about the Web. It’s a great article, by the way.
Jon’s play on words reminds me of the
full context: “It’s only me pursuing
something I’m not sure of. Across my
dream, with nets of wonder. I chase
the bright elusive butterfly of …..”
Could Lind have been dreaming of an
internet before there was one?
i seems to me that we are arguably in the human economy in many ways….
but still also segments society are still probably caught up in the consumer economy
i think I also read (perhaps, was it Covey? – can’t remember) about the “personality ethic” – I can’t remember what that was supposed to have evolved into….
interesting post thanks.
Jon Awbrey
If you know me, you know it cost me
an e-fort of will in some x-tremity
to e-rase that hyphen of e-lusivity.
I will check the liner notes, but later maybe —
there’s a man with a net, and he’s chasing me!
Tweets that mention Akahele --
This post was mentioned on Twitter by Gregory Kohs and Shari Swan.
Shari Swan said:
Greg Kohs has just written about the Human Economy from my lecture 3 years ago!
Anthony DiPierro
I think the logarithmic length of time periods in that analysis belies the bias of its methodology. But maybe I would be more impressed if I heard the actual speech.
Gregory Kohs
I want to thank everyone for making comments on this post. Not to mention, I also received a comment via e-mail from Seth Finkelstein, who said:
You might want to take a look at Yochai Benkler’s recent famous book (in certain circles), Wealth Of Networks. It’s online and freely downloadable as a PDF. It’s making a related type of “Human Economy” argument, though phrased differently.
J Powell
Human economy? Nope.
Right idea, wrong moniker.
*Services* economy.
J Powell
I like your line of thought, Greg.
But I’d personally put the comparatives in the form of:
“Industrial/Goods” vs. “Services/Intangibles” economy.
2. VALUES-related
Individualistic/Materialism vs. Collectivist/Philanthropic.
My 2 cents: if you start to mix-up the green movement with the wellness-movement, there’s a mixup in metaphors, i.e. I consider “wellness” to be individualistic-materialism. Whereas “green” climate-conscious focus is, at the core, collectivist/philanthropic – at least until someone figures out how to score some dough off of it, in which case it plops back into category 1,
Huynh Hung Tien
We have to create a new economic theory which will help mankind to solve all it problems like: charity, health, environment, recession and crisis…See an idea in link