[UKUUG Logo] Copyright © 1995-2004 UKUUG Ltd


Previous Next

Soap Box

Steve Talbot's soap box in our last newsletter, Why I Never Buy Books from Amazon.com, certainly made some people reach for their keyboard in order to challenge his assertions.

Search Globally, Buy Locally

(Phil Walsh)

A practice I have been using is to shop online, but buy locally. For instance, I may use Amazon's search engine to look for books on a particular topic or by a certain author. After I've figured out what I want, I call a local independent bookstore, and have them order the book for me. They are glad to do special orders, and they have the book shipped directly to my house.

I suppose if enough of us started doing this, the online booksellers would want to charge for using their search engine, much as many credit card companies now consider you a "freeloader" if you never carry a balance forward, and actually try to penalize you for it.

Why I Use Amazon.com

(Bryce Muir)

Amazon is a marvellous index of available books, and worth using for that alone.

I have very personal connections to two local booksellers. One carrying new books, the other used. At the first I have a standing discount in return for my steady business and long friendship. At the other I have a virtually unlimited credit due to a commission sculpture I made for the owners. I wouldn't dream of ignoring the "gift" economy connected to these stores, and the socio-ecological connections doing business there entails. Their health and survival is vital to my community.

That doesn't stop me from shopping at the chain bookstores and Amazon. For one thing, local booksellers are niche marketers, and sometimes I want something out of their niche. Secondly, the vast inventories available at mass market vendors is a window on the wider culture, and a rich field to browse in.

So I use a mixed strategy. I regularly browse my local stores as part of my social round, but I also cruise mass market stores and search topics at Amazon. Sometimes I write down the names of books I find at the big stores, and order it through my local, or check it out of the library. Other times I will buy a book directly from the mass source, for various reasons: because I want a specific gift overnight, because it's a mass market potboiler vs. a book my local would find worth carrying, and to keep the alternate service available.

I believe we should use our dollars to encourage the kind of economy we desire. I want both a personal, local, economic network, and a global marketplace. I don't believe the choice is either/or. The ideal of only using local markets is just as fanciful as the notion of a free universal marketplace. If I were to depend on what my local booksellers choose to sell I'd read lots of poetry, but I'd never be able to find books for my brother the mathematician. I'm willing to give some business to Amazon to preserve that diversity. I've lived at the mercy of monopoly vendors on remote islands, and the dream of the perfect local economy is just that.

Your plaint about the atomization of goods and services, and the resulting dehumanization, could be said about dollars and cents. In fact it has been since the invention of a common currency. The separation of value from material goods is nothing new. A dollar has no heart, and is the ultimate atom of economic activity. That hasn't stopped us from applying morality and ethics to our dollar transactions. When we're mindful. There is some indication that the very atomization and globalization of goods and services you disapprove of is engendering a counter-current of localism and individualism, as the profitabilty of niche markets is enhanced.

Here's a local example. Some of my neighbors have become enthusiastic players on E-Bay. Their expectations were that they would sell local treasures to a national market and make big money. What has in fact happened is they are selling their findings to a regional market, and they often deal face-to-face with their customers. Rather than trusting some distant stranger, they wheel and deal within hail, after making the connection via the web. They are also haunting the yard sales, and that down home economy is thriving. What E-Bay seems to have done in this province is stimulate and accelerate what is basically a local alternate cash economy. Hardly dehumanizing.

I've had a similar internet experience. Last October I began posting a personal journal to a web site (www.brycemuir.com .. "Journal of a Local Artist."). I expected that broadcasting an illustrated version of what had been a private e-mail chronicle of life in a small town would turn this place into a global village. People from all over could tune in on a Maine town, and smell the balsam. What actually happened is that my neighbors heard about it by word-of-mouth, and now the site functions more as a local newspaper than as a destination resort for strangers. I'd thought the internet would dissolve local boundaries, instead it has enhanced our localism. The web is weaving us together in a new way.

Beware academic generalizations about big systems until you've checked on what the locals are actually doing.

Amazon.com's Excellent Service is Worth Supporting

(Kirk McElhearn)

I appreciate your comments on Amazon.com, and your comparison with farmers' markets, but I beg to differ... :-)

While you can buy your eggs and broccoli from many different sources, and still get eggs or broccoli, the same is not true for books. Books are, by their nature, a monopolistic product. They contain "intellectual property" and, with the exception of public domain texts, can only be sold by the publisher that the author has contracted with.

Now these monopolistic products can be bought in many ways: from bookstores, naturally, but also from Amazon.com or other online booksellers, from catalogs, or even directly from the publishers. People have traditionally chosen to buy books from bookstores, for the simple reason that they were more or less the only places you could buy them, but recently, other sources have become popular.

Now I have been working in and around the publishing business for 20 years - as a small press publisher, editor of a journal, bookseller (for 3 years, here in France; and as a student in New York, and now as a translator). I have seen the book business from many different angles.

When I first started working in a bookstore, I had wanted to learn the trade and open a bookstore myself. I quickly discovered that selling books is not such a romantic job as I had thought, and the pressure from publishers to sell the books they wanted was too great to be able to really make a living selling the books I wanted. This is true here in France, but also in the US, and probably in most countries. In short, the job is stifling and the work is generally ungratifying. Trying to make a living selling just "good" books is very difficult.

I am also a faithful customer of Amazon.com. I may be a special case, living overseas, and not having easy access to books in English, but having been a bookseller I am not inclined to buy only for low prices. You see, I keep on buying from Amazon.com for one simple reason - they have excellent customer service. While I have ordered from other on-line booksellers, their customer service has been execrable. Amazon.com has always replied quickly and efficiently to all my questions, a bit like a bookstore. And they have gotten me books that bookstores have claimed impossible to find...

Not only do they have good customer service, but they let their customers express their opinions on books, which have sometimes dissuaded me from purchasing, and sometimes convinced me to buy other books.

You need to remember that community economics just does not exist with books, it cannot because of their monopolistic nature. While the old corner bookstore is nice, there is (unfortunately) little future in it, for reasons that existed before Amazon.com.

Sorry if all this is a bit disjointed, but I think your reasoning is just a bit off target for once.

The Voluntary Complexity Movement

(Langdon Winner)
"Do these sneakers have a built-in pager, cell phone and Web browser?" I asked the Nike salesman at the mall. "I need to stay connected while I'm out jogging."

"Not yet," he smiled, "but I suppose we'll have all that by next spring."

"Good. I'll check back."

Although my question was facetious, it was not entirely absurd given today's tendency for electronics, clothing, appliances, vehicles, and buildings to merge as new, feature-rich hybrids. Gone is the historical moment in which a tool had just one function or a limited range of functions. No longer is a telephone just a telephone, a mirror just a mirror, a dishwasher just a dishwasher. In the era of "ubiquitous computing" everything must become an "information appliance" communicating with all the other instruments a person uses. According to the latest projections from the R&D labs, the creation, marketing and eventual use of these gadgets will be one of society's major preoccupations in the coming century.

Proclamations of this great turning point are far from subtle. "Technology: What You'll Want Next" exclaims the front page headline in the May 31 issue of Newsweek. The drooling lead story by Steven Levy describes dozens of home conveniences sure to become tomorrow's necessities. "Your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule, so if you're out of town it'll withhold the brew." "Electrolux's Internet Refrigerator can tell when food supplies get low and order more from the supermarket." Looking into the more distant future, the article describes the "really smart house" now on the drawing boards. In the bathroom, for example, "The mirror over the sink has given Mom the headlines while she's brushing her teeth, and the toilet has monitored the family's general health by chemical sampling. The medicine cabinet identifies Dad through biometric recognition and allows him his daily meds, while keeping out the kids."

What a world we're making! Thanks to the wonders of microelectronics, pervasive presence of the Internet and the availability of low-cost communications, there's literally no gadget so outrageous that no one will try to design, promote and sell it. In the Newsweek story and similar accounts, the basic assumptions of ubiquitous computing are presented in stark relief:

Descriptions of the world of ubiquitous computing are dazzling, if only for their sheer silliness. If you rate humanity's needs for the coming century on a scale of 1 to 10, none of the products and services depicted in Levy's article rises much beyond a score of 1.5. Here we find some of the greatest minds of our time, working long hours in high-tech Meccas like the Media Lab and Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, and what's the best they can come up with? Hundreds of items slated for the Sharper Image catalog. It's surprising that apparently nobody working in this field has noticed that all these new devices are not "intelligent," but simply dumb. Even thoughtful people like psychologist Donald Norman, called "the movement's guru" by Newsweek, seem to have gotten caught up in all the hoopla. Imagine sitting week after week in corporate meetings where all these weird gadgets are being scheduled for design and production and nobody stands up to say, "Hey, folks, let's face it. This stuff is just nuts!"

Of course, the reason talented people are busily at work on all these absurd appliances and infrastructures is that there's likely tons of money in it. Examples of success like the Palm Pilot (now the Palm VII) indicate how many billions can be made with a little ingenuity and clever marketing. The fact that few of the items imagined today fulfill even the most basic standards of need or utility is beside the point. We'll let the market decide, celebrating the fortunes made on one generation after another of superfluous techno-junk.

As if to dignify the role of ubiquitous computing, spokesmen for the movement argue that its larger, more noble goal is to eliminate life's complexity. As Levy explains, "Everything connected to the Net. It's a combination that could change our lives by doing what the PC, for all its virtues, never managed to accomplish: making things easy."

Note this carefully. A key selling point, it turns out, hinges on the frank admission that all those wonderful "personal" computers, touted for the past two decades as ways to make life simpler, have actually been a disaster - complicated, confusing and difficult to use. Figures prominent in hawking earlier models of the wired world, Michael Dertouzos and Kevin Kelly, for example, now lead the choir denouncing the old PCs as a failure. As Kelly opines in Newsweek, "For years, we've been battling all these devices; because they've been so hard to use, they were in the center of our consciousness."

Tears flow from my eyes. Can this be the same Kevin Kelly we've heard extolling the utopian promise of wired society for the past decade? Oh, never mind. Just ahead, we are assured, things will get much better. The new era of computing will eliminate all the vexations that riddled the previous one, at last making life truly simple. Because the new devices are "ubiquitous and adapting to us instead of the other way around," Kelly maintains, "they'll retreat."

Simplify. Save time. Reduce effort. Liberate yourself from toil. This has been the continuing siren song of consumer technology throughout the twentieth century. Unfortunately, in its own terms, the dream is always self-defeating. As people add more and more time-saving, labor-saving equipment to their homes, their lives do not become simpler and easier. Instead their days become even more complicated, demanding and rushed.

Historians and sociologists have studied this phenomenon thoroughly and can explain its predictable, recurring dynamics. Ruth Schwarz Cowan's book, More Work For Mother, for example, describes the attempts of several generations of women to "save time" by using new household appliances. As people adopted these conveniences, they also changed their expectations about what the good life should include. Thus, families that bought washing machines after World War II did not spend less time washing clothes, but more. The reason was that the machines enabled them to have clean clothes more often, something that mom, dad and kids found desirable.

Over several decades the same pattern appears in other areas of cleaning, cooking and household management; new gadgets actually take up more time and effort, but are welcomed because they seem to enhance people's material well-being. When the automobile and suburb are added to the equation, one sees families spending enormous amounts of time taking care of the supplies, services and repairs needed for the everyday maintenance of the "good life". Thus, the minutes and hours supposedly "saved" are never put in the bank and never draw any interest. The phantom of simplicity and ease vanishes as people frantically dash about trying to squeeze out the last ounce of satisfaction.

But that was then, this is now, right? Surely the smart equipment slated for our domestic tomorrow will finally help us achieve the trouble-free existence of our dreams.

Don't count on it. All one has to do is look at how the best-equipped families in America's high-tech neighborhoods are now arranging their everyday lives. In Silicon Valley, for example, several anthropologists are studying the detailed movements of people employed in the electronics and computing industries. Their findings, summarized recently in USA Today, suggest that, if anything, the rat race identified by Professor Cowan and others is being reproduced and greatly intensified. Adults work long hours, commute long distances and spend little time at home. Their children shuttle from schools and day care centers to their soccer games and music lessons, driven by services like "Kids Kab" that fill in for busy parents. Mom and dad stay in touch by cell phone and pager, check the Web for schedule changes, and coordinate the next day's agenda by synchronizing their Palm Pilots when they meet at night.

Conditions of this kind take shape as people who work in technical fields adapt family life to the norms and pulse of their high-tech jobs. "They're multitasking like mad," researcher Jan English-Lueck told USA Today. "I'm stunned at all they do." The picture that emerges is of an endlessly busy, complicated, precariously balanced, strung-out existence in which traditional boundaries between work and leisure have evaporated. "Parents go to events for their kids because they know they'll also be meeting parents of other kids who will be good business contacts," notes anthropologist Charles Darrah. "Is that home or work?"

Adding smart machines to every corner of the built environment does nothing to alleviate these patterns of hurry, stress and disconnection from people. Indeed, this is the very path through which the madness spreads, grasping us more firmly. Most appalling, we Americans scarcely notice the pathologies our choices spawn. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind us what we're doing.

Recently, I asked a German friend, Ernst Schraube, a psychologist now finishing a sabbatical in the U.S.A., what he found most surprising about our country. "Oh yes," he said, "one thing that amazes me is how hard Americans work and how little free time people have. They fill their days with activity and seem to leave little room to relax or be with family or friends. By European standards this is unthinkable. In Germany, for example, the work week is thirty-five hours and we have six weeks paid vacation. I don't know how you Americans stand it."

But stand it we must, cramming more and more tasks into already harried days, adopting all kinds of digital technology as glue to hold things together. It never occurs to us that real time could be saved doing away with some of the routines and equipment that fill our lives. It never seems an option to reduce our workloads to enjoy being with the ones we love. So complete is our embrace of voluntary complexity that one strategy alone seems sensible: Push on and hope for the best!

Copyright Langdon Winner 1999. Distributed as part of NETFUTURE: http://www.oreilly.com/~stevet/netfuture/ . You may redistribute this article for noncommercial purposes, with this notice attached.

Previous Next
Last modified 24 Oct 1999 00:00
Tel: 01763 273 475
Fax: 01763 273 255
Web: Webmaster
Queries: Ask Here
Join UKUUG Today!

UKUUG Secretariat