The net positionby Andrew Brown / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in February 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
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?