Broken Promises of the Internet, Part 2: The Speed of Light is Slower Than My Car

[Part 1 is here]

I'm old enough to remember when the "Internet" was a thing of pure potential. Its John-the-Baptists painted pictures of what would be possible once enough brains were hardwired into the system.

But what was not apparent in those early days was that these dreamers were secretly hippies, terminally optimistic about the potential interactions of technology, commerce, and human nature, and thus, fundamentally naive.

They promised us a digital Eden, and what we got was Kmart Lawn and Garden. I'm here to officially complain.

"Commerce and retail will become faster and less frustrating"

I've written before about how retailers have been incentivized away from actually "stocking" "items" in "stores" that I can "drive to", like "right now". While it's true that some things that used to be impossible to get now can be obtained, many more things which used to have to be sold in brick-and-mortar retailers (or else not get sold at all) now can only be found online.

Okay, yes, for some people (see also "city folk") and products (see also "the same shit carried in your local stores") there are some stupid-fast online options. But currently the average online experience is in terms of single-digit days, which is not as fast as me driving to Walmart. It used to be, if you wanted a thing, you went out and got it. But nooo, that business model was WAY too inconvenient. For the retailers.

I argue that with the advent of the Internet, the average shopping experience has become more lengthy and annoying, even as it has become more sedentary (more on that later). This not so much a "broken promise" as it is a horrible monkey's-paw-style unintended consequence. The assumption (by marketers and other non-humans) was that the base metric of Western shopping was "average efficacy", instead of satisfaction. That is a very different goal.

But okay, let's assume for a moment that the speed delta between brick-and-mortar and digital shopping is eventually eliminated (or at least reduced to a negligible amount). I argue that even then our proper human impulses will still prefer to see, hold, or try out the thing, before committing money to the transaction.

It bleeds satisfaction out of the experience to wait for a thing to arrive and then do the trying-out in the context of the question "should I return this". One's relationship to an already purchased item is drastically different from one on a shelf in a store. Okay, the financials of the situation may be equivalent, in our new-normal of free returns (as long as that may last), but the emotions are not. We need to be honest with ourselves, and our retailers, about this fact.

Just like everything else that it touches, the Internet has deprived the shopping experience of context: the commodity's "meaning" in the context of my hand, or of the other things on the shelf, or the things I had to walk past on my way to it, or how many were left on the shelf versus a competitor. When we make a purchase with the proper, real-world context, it contributes to the overall satisfaction of the experience. In the digital world, our lizard brains secretly understand that contexts and adjacencies and relationships are infinitely fluid and fungible there, and so all of that meaning is lost.

Obviously, I'm not talking about all shopping. There's no need to have an ontological "experience" when buying Tide. But prosaic grocery-buying is just a special case of the larger capitalistic project called "shopping", and I refuse to believe that making the dull kinds of shopping easier is worth making the interesting kinds of shopping harder, more frustrating, and slower. And the mechanism by which both sides of this deal are taking place is by the over-manipulation or outright stripping away of normal, human, three-dimensional context.

This is horribly ironic, since context is literally what the World Wide Web is made of. It's one of the main reasons I enjoy blogging, because hypertext allows for context to be incorporated into the actual text (like I did right there sixteen words ago). But at some point during the tortured evolution of ecommerce we lost our way, and we started seeing shopping as primarily an object-based enterprise. It is not. It is a human enterprise that involves objects. And like most human enterprises, it can be stripped of his meaning through the twin evils of optimization and marketing.

Repent. The end of shopping as a joyful experience is near. Capitalism wins. Capitalists lose.

"First Principles", or "6:15am to 6:30am every day"

Broken Promises of the Internet, Part I: Community, Schmommunity