This year is going to be the year in which everyone tries buying stuff over the net-once. In a selfless way, I have been shopping for you all last year (that’s what I told my wife, anyway, when the coffee mug arrived from Amazon.com to thank me for my custom).
Amazon.com advertises itself as “the world’s biggest bookstore.” It may in fact be the world’s smallest, because it contains no books at all; only a network of computers across the road from one of the biggest book wholesalers in America. But it has a huge and easily searchable catalogue-I often use it as a substitute for a library catalogue when I want to find books on a specific subject, even if I do not buy them. Distressingly often I do buy them, especially since Amazon introduced “one-click shopping.” Buying books has always been easy there, with a minimum of forms to fill in; but now there is a button in the catalogue pages for regular customers, which enables us to order a book, shipped to our usual address, with one mouse click. It makes me feel like one of those rats which is given a button in its cage wired to the pleasure centre in its brain. It clicks and clicks until it dies of starvation; and so will I if I keep visiting.
It is a curious fact of web economics that Amazon is losing money by driving its devoted customers broke, too. Most of its books are deeply discounted in competition with Barnes and Noble, a giant chain of American book stores, which is also on the web and tends to be even cheaper. I have only ever bought one book there (Kitty Kelley’s The Royals, which Amazon would not sell to British customers) but Barnes and Noble sends huge and attractive catalogues to every customer as a follow-up. My seven-year-old daughter observes Advent all year round with book catalogues, helpfully ringing everything in them she would like us to buy. “Daddy,” she said, looking up from this one: “What’s The Gay Kama Sutra?” I can guard her against finding nasty stuff on the internet, but how am I supposed to protect her against that?
a world in which all vineyards are on the internet is surely coming; when it arrives no one will ask what use computers are, except with a hiccup and a giggle. If I can buy delicious wine from a chateau in Bordeaux for 20 francs a bottle, why can’t I order it to be delivered to my home for ?3 a bottle? This does not depend on advances in computer technology or phone lines so much as on a network of reliable courier firms and post offices. Indeed, there are wine merchants who sell by mail order already, although it is difficult to think of anything I should more like to try before buying. A quick search found three which had impressive web shops. Unfortunately the nearest was in Dublin. So we ended up going to Oddbins as usual.
There are still some obstacles to a world in which anyone can buy anything anywhere from a modem. The hardest to overcome are physical. What is worth buying by mail order has to be fairly easily shipped. Books, CDs, software, and the tender bits inside a computer can all be sensibly bought from California. Large and bulky things such as monitors or wine cannot-or not yet. But all the really off-putting obstacles can be put down to software. Amazon.com is one of the few sites which organises its goods as a human being would see them arranged in a shop, rather than in the way most obvious to a database programmer. In a real shop, I can see large numbers of goods at one time; I can easily examine more closely any which take my fancy. Even if they are in boxes or bottles, I can find out a good deal about them from the labelling. If that fails, I can ask an assistant. Try doing any of those things in a virtual shop, and you will understand why I predict that this will be the year when everyone goes shopping on the internet-once.
still, there are things the net does even worse than shopping. I tried to enrol in a course on consciousness at the University of Arizona for six weeks: in exchange for a credit card number they sent me a password to a web site where all the course materials and discussions were stored. It was a disaster. Perhaps if I had had more experience I would have done better; but I found it impossible to discover even what I was supposed to be learning. The web site itself was slick, compli-cated and crashed frequently. After about ten visits I simply gave up. This is hardly surprising: shopping involves a much more limited range of transactions than teaching, so it is much easier to squeeze down the phone lines. n