Transitioning towards an economy of meaning

Written by Safa Alai:

“An economy based on creation and exchange of meaning is rushing to dominate what most of us do for a living. Here we discuss the reasons.

Human economy has evolved from hunter-gatherer, to agricultural, to industrial and now to knowledge-based. Each transition has been faster than the transition before it, the most recent transitions being so fast that they are rightly considered revolutions. At the beginning of each revolution most people are engaged in one activity and by the end they have shifted to an entirely new activity. So for instance at the beginning of the industrial revolution the majority of people were farm workers but by the end of the revolution the majority were working in manufacturing. Some societies, such as Britain and the United States, made these transitions earlier, while other societies, such China and India, are changing now, with the difference that the newer societies are transitioning at a much more rapid clip. The latest transition has been the knowledge economy. It’s start can be roughly traced back to the invention of the PC, and the World Wide Web together with all of its connected technologies and applications (such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google) together with various corporate application (most notably SAP, but also Virtualization), are but a few of the changes this revolution has brought about.

But the knowledge-based economy is already showing its age. Numerous books, such as Peter Drucker’s Post Capitalist Society or Charles Handy’s The Hungry Spirit, have attempted to discuss what is beyond knowledge work, with many proposing that the new economy, the fourth economy, is an economy of the mind, where knowledge is applied to unlocking the potential of the human mind. Yet, even this forth economy is more about things than human beings. Expanding the mind is about enabling us to produce more things, to do our jobs better, and to serve the consumer society, a society dominated by the consumption of material goods all of which are external to us: here today, gone tomorrow. In effect, we expand our minds not because we are passionate to explore and grow ourselves, but because we are compelled to perform, compete, and survive.

Yet all things in a consumer society are there to serve human needs. In 1943, Abraham Maslow postulated that human needs can be organized as a pyramid at the top of which, is the need for self-actualization, which is the need to fulfill our inner potential, to make something of ourselves, to express ourselves and to contribute something meaningful to society at large. Self-actualization is the goal of the personal development or personal growth. It is an innate need which drives us, once our other needs are met, to mine the gems buried in our subconscious, to bring them into the real world, and to polish and display them. It is our inner calling to grow. In the Economy of Meaning, the Fifth Economy, we start with self-actualization and move a step farther to reach the core of who we are and what we do, that is to create meaning. Our whole being from the ground up is built to live and breathe meaning. In effect, human beings are the meaning creating organ of the universe; we are the universe looking back at itself.”

Watch this video:

Also of interest, this presentation by Frithjof Bergmann, on “new work” for an economy of meaning:

3 Comments Transitioning towards an economy of meaning

  1. David Week

    In a sense, the economy of meaning has always been with us, in so far as we have always been willing to pay a premium to live in a suburb because of its cachet or hip factor, drink single malt even if we can’t really taste the difference, and buy Apple gear because its our religious affiliation, as well as the fact that it works.

    And it would be interesting to look back the flows of money into cathedrals, mosques and synagogues: the degree to which people have long been willing to invest in meaning, outside any form of visible consumption of goods and services.

    Meaning has long produced a “value add”.

    What Safa’s text suggests is that it will become an increasingly large part of the turnover of the economy, and possibly start to detach itself from goods, services, and information. Such an economic shift would allow GDP to continue to grow, without increasing pressure on the planet. Like information, meaning is weightless, and takes very little energy (most of it human) to produce and transmit.

  2. happyseaurchin

    this fifth economy
    the economy of meaning
    happens to land at the first step of buddhism

    the chances are
    western tradition will reinvent a new methodology to explore this realm of subjective meaning
    (i am part of that)
    but sadly it will probably not acknowledge the authority of eastern heritage

    wouldn’t it be wiser
    and humanistically more ethical
    (and indeed socially pragmatic given the stresses of our time)
    to observe and test what other cultures already provide…?

    i am tired of western dudes constantly reinventing things
    like the scientists who invent new genetic forms of crop
    without due credit to the native strains from which they are derived

  3. Michel Bauwens

    Hi David, you will like the new thesis from Nicolas Mendoza about precisely this topic, i.e. the crucial importance of buddhist approaches to enrich the p2p movement. Write me an email, I’ll put you in touch.


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