The Experience Economy – Why Bears Don’t Talk And Kids Can’t Make Them

Posted on June 14, 2008


Joseph Pine and James Gilmore have written intelligently on the various forces of economics and consumerism. This book is one I use in the class I teach at a local Christian college to discuss experience as a human phenomena. My main contention is that wanting and desiring an experience is not bad. We should not stand in judgment for that drive in the human psyche/spirit/soul. What is shifting in our culture is that the burden of responsibility for providing the experience has shifted away from the individual as it looks towards others to being the provider of bigger and better experiences. This concept is very related to consumerism, and has fairly decent ramifications for how society works and behaves.

My wife told a story the other day that illustrates this beautifully, and with a new twist.

My wife, who works with children, mentioned an incident when a young girl, pre-adolescent, picked up a stuffed bear that was provided for her entertainment, and the first thing she did was ask,

“What does it do?”

“What does it do?” replied my wife.

“Yeah, does it talk, sing, dance,…what does it do?”

My wife replied, “It doesn’t do anything. You get to make it do stuff. Use your imagination. It’s fun to pretend!”

The girl looked at her with that disdainful and an almost “you’re so weird and out of touch” look. She put the bear down and walked away.

The four of us chatting about this began reminiscing and pondering our pasts. Remember when a toy truck was sufficient to provide hours of entertainment, imagining the various jobs and adventures it was going on? And that was without a driver. I remember Lincoln Logs, and Legos, and Tinker Toys, things that required your imagination, your involvement, your engagement with the item, but also with yourself and your soul. And what about before that? I even remember a box of sand in the backyard. After picking out all the cat poop, we were good to go, building tunnels, using leaves as cars, and creating entire metropolises (or metropoli) out of billions and billions of grains of sand. And that brought joy.

Here’s the rub. The era that is losing ground (and is possibly already lost) is the time in which items were not entertaining, but we were entertaining. Toys brought us joy, not because the toy made us alive, but because our imaginations made the toys alive. And that, I lament, is gone.

What I didn’t notice before about the Experience Economy (perhaps because I need to read the book more thoroughly) is that not only are experiences becoming commodified, but imaginations are becoming old, obsolete, fossilized, and nearing extinction.

Perhaps it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps we can again teach our kids to make bears talk, make sticks into swords, trees and blankets into forts, and sand pits into cities. Instead of the need for complex (and costly) things to bring us joy and entertainment, maybe we can return to the time when simple things were made beautiful by the very imaginations God gave us.