In 2008, for my father's birthday, I wanted to give him season six of The X-Files, because I knew that he would love the episode "The Unnatural", which is about baseball.
I spent three days scouring Manhattan for the DVD box set. I tried Borders and Barnes & Noble and HMV. I tried Target and Kmart and Best Buy. I would have tried Virgin, but they had already closed by then.
Clerk after clerk told me that my best bet was to order it online. Borders even offered a web terminal in their stores for that very purpose.
"But I want it now," my mind screamed. I didn't want it to be mailed to me just so I could wrap it up and mail it to my dad. And I certainly was not going to just have it sent to him, broadcasting that his birthday was only worth two-clicks worth of effort to me.
I wanted to see how big the box was that the DVDs came in; maybe I wouldn't buy it if the cardboard was too flimsy (the man hates flimsy cardboard); any number of other justifications for having a chance to hold the thing that you're going to give as a gift.
Besides, this was New Fucking York. This was where everything was. The bastard had to be there somewhere.
But it wasn't anywhere, nowhere physical. This was the turning point in my personal history where the only cost-effective place to keep the things that I wanted to buy became cyberspace.
Every few weeks since then I have had another identical screaming match with the culture. Old-school sneakers. Accelerade. A decent ligature. Hard drive enclosure. A particular brand of low-end Powerpoint clicker. Kobalt Magnum Grip Pliers. What do you mean you don't carry them?! Is this not a "store"?
These items are not rare or obscure. They may be specific, but they are not unreasonable requests. I picked them as examples because they are exactly the kinds of things that, back in the 90s, I would have just gone to the mall to get, or to Walmart. Hell, those pliers were hanging on a rack in Lowe's not six weeks ago. But not any more. What incentive does Lowe's, LLC have to restock them? Ever?
But I want them now. I don't want to wait for my fucking pliers. Today is the day when I have the time to tighten those nuts. I'm up, I'm dressed, I've driven here, I have money, I'm ready to go. But no. The Internet is just so goddamn efficient that it doesn't matter what I want, or when. All it can say is "You can have them Tuesday, or tomorrow for an extra four dollars".
In the 90s, I'd have my fucking pliers by now. Stores actually had things to sell back them, because that was where THINGS were. If you had a thing to sell, it had to sell well enough to justify keeping it in a store. That was the acid test for whether a product needed to exist. If it was "hard" for a store to keep a product in stock, meaning it cost more to burn shelf space on them then you made in profit, then they didn't let you buy it anymore, and sometimes this meant products shriveled and died on the vine, because the Market deemed them unworthy.
Sometimes this represented a hardship, if the store didn't have the thing that you wanted. But most of the time, when you left the house on an errand, you came back with the thing you went out for. A movie. A stereo cable. A DVD player. You wanted something, and you went out and got it, like a goddamn civilized human being.
The entire trend of civilization up to that point had been towards luxury and gratification. We were approaching a singularity of instant material gratification, and when the retail superstore came about, we'd almost reached it.
But then we backed off. We said that we'd be willing to trade in some of that timeliness in exchange for a slightly larger selection.
This is not a bargain. Just because I can get a Japanese flute as quickly as a book doesn't mean that I'm better off, because most of the time I don't need a Japanese flute. Most of the time I just need a particular book.
I was much happier back when the Internet was like a big Sears, Roebuck catalog, where you went only for those weird and rare things that could not economically be carried by your local general store. Somewhere along the line the Internet became the general store, and the building that you drive to became relegated to carrying only those products which might entice a casual browser.
And so those aimless wanderers get their desires instantaneously created and fulfilled. Meanwhile, the serious professional shoppers, the ones with more money, more desires, and less time, we have to wait.
Because of the Internet. As if that was an answer.