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  •                                  NETFUTURE
                        Technology and Human Responsibility
    Issue #91      A Publication of The Nature Institute         June 23, 1999
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    NETFUTURE is a reader-supported publication.
    Editor's Note
    Quotes and Provocations
       The Negativism of NETFUTURE
       Grounds for Optimism
    Will the Internet Be Bad for Democracy? (Eli Noam)
       Yes, says this telecommunications analyst
       Search Globally, Buy Locally (Phil Walsh)
       Why I Use Amazon.com (Bryce Muir)
       Amazon.com's Excellent Service is Worth Supporting (Kirk McElhearn)
    About this newsletter
                                  EDITOR'S NOTE
    This issue has been hung up for far too long, between my own globe-trot-
    ting and that of Prof. Eli Noam, whose article on the Internet and
    democracy is featured here.  In my case, the travel was related to a brief
    Guest Professorship at Karl Franzens University in the extraordinarily
    beautiful city of Graz, Austria.  The course I taught there dealt with the
    fragmenting social impacts of a range of modern technologies.  While in
    Graz I also addressed the question of "Virtual Spirituality" at an
    international conference on "Rite, Cult, Virtuality".  Some of the
    material from these undertakings will doubtless find its way into future
    issues of NETFUTURE.
    On the morning of July 10 I'll be speaking on technology and globalization
    at a conference on "The Threefold Social Order and the Challenge of Elite
    Globalization".  The venue is New Lebanon, New York.  (Contact Nancy Root
    at 413-528-0605 for further information.)  If you're in the area, stop by!
    Goto table of contents
                             QUOTES AND PROVOCATIONS
    The Negativism of NETFUTURE
    Two readers, both of them appreciative subscribers to NETFUTURE, have
    recently voiced concern to me about the sustained "negativism" of the
    newsletter, which is beginning to sound to one of them like a "nay-saying
    This hits me at a vulnerable spot.  The vulnerability needs owning up to
    -- and I will come back to it.  But first, a little vigorous self-defense!
    I was puzzled to receive these two messages directly on the heels of three
    feature articles in successive issues (NF #88, 89, and 90), dealing with
    medicine, with Jane Healy's Failure to Connect, and with
    The first of these was, as much as anything else, a plea for alternative
    The second reviewed a book that did it's best to find a role for the
    computer in education, despite mostly disastrous evidence from the field
    so far.  Yes, Healy's assessment was rather pessimistic, but my own
    response to her case was to urge the consideration of concrete educational
    approaches that work incredibly well with students, avoid the cost of
    computers, and overcome the systematic one-sidedness of our culture into
    which computers so readily play.  If that's not positive, I'm not sure
    what is.
    And the third was primarily a plug for local economics.
    So the problem really seems to be, not negativism in general, but the
    fairly consistent sorts of things I am negative about:  in particular, the
    entire range of ways we as a society are putting digital technologies to
    use -- that is, the overall patterns of our use.  Now, when I hear the
    plaintive question, "Can't you find some positive use for computers
    in the classroom?"  my immediate, and perhaps rather too self-serving
    reaction is to make these points:
    ** Give me anything and I will find a positive use for it.  Dreaming up
    positive uses is the simplest thing in the world.  (To begin with, it's
    always positive to seek an understanding of something.)  But finding a
    positive use for a particular tool is not always the urgent thing.
    ** In the second place, the form of the complaint looks a little
    suspicious.  How is it that in our society questions about education have
    become questions about the computer?  Why is the soul-vexing issue the
    question whether one gives proper place to the computer or not?  Why do
    other extremely hopeful approaches to education disappear from view as
    issues in their own right, becoming little more than statements "for" or
    "against" computers?  It sounds rather as if the very technologically
    induced distortion of issues that is the target of much venom in these
    columns has already been at work preparing the way for this complaint.
    The question staring most people in the face today seems to be "How can we
    make use of the computer in education?" rather than "What is the
    educational need here, and how can we best supply it?"  That's the
    incredible diversionary power of the computer:  we demand some sort of
    balanced answer regarding the computer, rather than a balanced answer
    regarding education.  But these are very different things.  Given the
    unbalanced social context in which education occurs -- including the acute
    lack of direct and meaningful engagement between child and adult mentor,
    between the child and the natural world, and also between the child and
    adult society -- it may well be that the computer's main tendency is to
    carry us in the opposite direction from educational balance.
    An example I've used before:  if you've got a balance with a hundred
    weights on one side and five on the other, it doesn't make much sense to
    add fifty more weights to the heavy side while saying, "It's all right as
    long as we maintain balance."  The claim is true, but probably not to the
    ** Third, I guess I've always assumed that readers will give due heed to
    the fact that I'm communicating with them over a computer network -- and
    have been making my living with this technology for eighteen years.  Every
    time you or I write a message to someone with kind intent, we are doing
    something good with the computer.  Every time someone undertakes a
    computer analysis of an environmental problem, or uses a computer model to
    predict the weather for farmers who need to plant crops, or answers an
    emergency health question in an online discussion group -- then good is
    being done.
    ** But, in the fourth place -- and this is the crux of the whole matter --
    we need to move to a deeper level of analysis.  There is also no end of
    good things one can do with an automobile, from buying someone a present
    at the mall to taking an injured person to a distant hospital.  But if you
    lived at the beginning of the twentieth century, and if, possessed of
    unusual foresight, you had grave misgivings about how the automobile was
    beginning to restructure society, what would your message to your
    contemporaries have been?
    Certainly you would not be so malicious as to suggest it would be better
    to leave the injured person lying in the gutter.  But if you really were
    addressing the deeper level rather than the obvious, you would raise
    questions about -- well, about an infinite range of things.  How would the
    automobile itself contribute to overall patterns of injury and health?
    How would it play into our besetting tendencies to abandon community and
    flee ourselves?  How would it help to fragment and ghetto-ize society?
    Depending on your own answers to such questions, you might find yourself
    in the uncomfortable position of saying, "Yes, quickly, get this man to
    the hospital", but then adding in quiet conversation afterward, "You know,
    the more we as a society rely on this machine with our current imbalances,
    the more we will, even with our good deeds, strengthen certain forces that
    bring pain and suffering to society".
    That's what I want to emphasize.  If you're addressing questions at an
    underlying level where things and processes re-shape society, then you may
    find that what you have to do -- even when you're talking about immediate
    activities that are perfectly virtuous -- is to add an unwelcome warning
    to the reigning sense of virtue.  And this is the level it is my whole
    purpose to bring attention to.
    ** Finally, when I am arguing a position that is not widely accepted (and
    I don't see much use in arguing positions of the other sort), I have
    usually felt obligated to engage the main counterarguments.  So in this
    sense it's always going to look as if I'm "against" conventional views,
    despite the fact that the whole point is to make room "for" a non-
    conventional one.
    In this regard, I hope most readers have picked up on my dead-serious and
    certainly positive advocacy of such things as the value of ecological
    farming; the necessity for qualitative investigations (in every field) as
    the justification and counterbalance for our powerful urge toward abstract
    analysis; the grounding of all education in the experience of one human
    being by another; and the irreplaceable values to be had from local
    Okay, enough of that.  Once I am done with the huffing and puffing, I find
    myself having to admit that the plaintiffs are right.  I think an
    unhealthy negative element does creep into some of my writing.
    That, at least, is the rather vague intimation of my own conscience.  As
    to where to go with the matter, I'm not yet sure.  I'll certainly continue
    to do my best to puncture the nonsense surrounding so much of the
    contemporary technological thrust; but perhaps, over time, you will notice
    a little bit of a shifting balance and emphasis.
    In any case, it seemed right to acknowledge a legitimacy to my
    correspondents' case.  And, as a kind of temporary penance, I offer the
    article, "Grounds for Optimism", that follows this one.  But please don't
    hold me responsible for Eli Noam's essay in this issue!  (And do note
    that, despite his title, his piece can more usefully be read as an
    argument for a deeper understanding of democracy rather than as an
    argument against the Internet.)
    Grounds for Optimism
    Several months ago, at a moment when I was wallowing in pessimistic
    reflection upon current events, I started to make a list.  I dedicated one
    of the 3x5 cards I carry around in my shirt pocket to the proposition that
    some powerfully good trends must be developing in society, and that I
    have, by temperament, allowed myself to discount them.
    Well, that list is now four items long.  These are no small items.  Taken
    together, they are almost enough to make me as optimistic about our future
    as the extropians and transhumanists!  Here they are:
    ** Environmental movement.  When I was young this didn't exist.  There was
    no pollution-control industry, and the public had not yet heard about
    ecology.  Anyone who pushed recycling would have been a flake.
    It is interesting to watch how attitudes can change, and how we eventually
    become aware of a moral unconsciousness in ourselves that is, after the
    fact, hard to fathom.  Think, for example, of the genuine indignation and
    incomprehension once provoked by the request, "Would you mind not
    smoking?"  It simply didn't occur to society as a whole that the noxious
    effect of smoke upon unwilling participants posed ethical problems we
    should address.  Yet today who would think otherwise?
    ** Organic agriculture and retailing.  This, too, could hardly have been
    foreseen when I was young.  Even in my days as an organic farmer (late
    1970s), the organic movement, such as it was, was dominated by hippies and
    other drop-outs.  Yet, sneer at them as we might (I did some of my own
    sneering), they performed a heroic service upon which societies
    periodically depend for survival:  they planted a seed, thereby providing
    an alternative that could be taken over by the rest of society when the
    reigning models proved destructive beyond bearing any longer.
    We certainly haven't yet "arrived" in organic terms.  But the progress is
    gratifying at a time when mainline supermarkets and large-scale commercial
    farms are discovering the virtues of what once was despised.
    ** Alternative medicine.  I wrote at length about this in NF #88.  As I
    mentioned there, Americans now visit alternative medical practitioners
    more often than conventional therapists, and they spend more money out of
    pocket on alternative treatments than conventional ones -- this despite
    the seemingly invincible power and aura of authority of the medical
    establishment.  What is it that wakens in the once-deferential public?
    ** Alternative schooling.  This sign is, for me, hopeful above all the
    others.  So long as the young are trapped upon the training grounds of the
    old regime, how can new life be released?  But now millions of parents
    have voted against the idea of politically mandated indoctrination by
    denying their children to the institutions of indoctrination.  They reject
    the notion that politicians should be empowered to enforce a kind of
    lowest-common-denominator curriculum that offends no one -- which
    inevitably turns out to offend everyone except the dullest-spirited.
    The proper way to avoid offending anyone when it comes to the highest
    stirrings of the human spirit -- which are, after all, what education
    should give wings to -- is to honor so far as possible the freedom to
    strive in all its incomprehensible diversity.
    The necessity for this freedom is, I think, what we see at work in the
    apparently irresistible movement toward a voucher system of some sort, in
    the dramatically successful home schooling movement, and in the public
    school system's grudging tolerance of various local, voluntary,
    experimental schools.
    So there are grounds for optimism, and I for one plan to keep them in
    sight.  Something is afoot, and recognizing the seeds of the future is at
    least as important as identifying the rot and decay within which (and,
    perhaps only within which) the seeds can take root.
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                                   Eli M. Noam
    [NETFUTURE reader Eli Noam is professor of finance and economics at
    Columbia University.  He is also director of the Columbia Institute for
    Tele-Information at the university's Graduate School of Business and a
    former Public Service Commissioner for the State of New York.  This
    article is an abridged version of a paper he read at the Heinz Nixdorf
    Computer Museum Forum, Paderborn, Germany, in May, 1999.  SLT]
    Controversies abound on most aspects of the Internet.  Yet when it comes
    to its impact on the democratic process, the answer seems unanimous.  The
    Internet is good for democracy.  It creates digital citizens (Wired, 1997)
    active in the vibrant teledemocracy (Etzioni, 1997) of the Electronic
    Republic (Grossman, 1995) in the Digital Nation (Katz, 1992).  Is there no
    other side to this question?  Is the answer so positively positive?
    The reasons why the Internet is supposed to strengthen democracy include
    the following.
    * The Internet lowers the entry barriers to political participation.
    * It strengthens political dialogue.
    * It creates community.
    * It cannot be controlled by government.
    * It increases voting participation.
    * It permits closer communication with officials.
    * It spreads democracy world-wide.
    My skepticism about the Internet as a pro-democracy force is not based on
    its uneven distribution.  This will solve itself soon, in rich countries.
    It is more systemic.  The problem is that most analysts commit a so-called
    error of composition.  That is, they confuse micro behavior with macro
    results.  They think that if something is helpful to an individual, it is
    also helpful to society at large, when everybody uses it.
    Suppose we had asked, a century ago, whether the automobile would reduce
    pollution.  The answer would have been easy and positive:  no horses, no
    waste on the roads, no smell, no use of agricultural land to grow oats.
    But we now recognize that in the aggregate, mass motorization has been bad
    for the environment.  It created emissions, dispersed the population, and
    put more demand on land.
    The second error is that of inference.  Just because the Internet is good
    for democracy in places like North Korea, Iran, or Sudan does not mean
    that it is better for Germany, Denmark, or the United States.  Just
    because three TV channels offer more diversity of information than one
    does not mean that 30,000 are better than 300.
    So here are several reasons why the Internet will not be good for
    democracy, corresponding to the pro-democracy arguments described above.
    The Internet will make politics more expensive and raise entry barriers
    The hope has been that online public space will be an electronic version
    of a New England or Swiss town meeting, open and ongoing.  The Internet
    will permit easy and cheap political participation and political
    campaigns.  But is that true?
    Easy entry exists indeed for an Internet based on narrowband transmission,
    which is largely text-based.  But the emerging broadband Internet will
    permit fancy video and multimedia information resources.  Inevitably,
    audience expectations will rise. When everyone can speak, who will be
    listened to?  If the history of mass media means anything, it will not be
    everyone. It cannot be everyone.  Nor will the wisest or those with the
    most compelling case or cause be heard, but the best produced and the best
    promoted.  And that is expensive.
    Secondly, because of the increasing glut and clutter of information, those
    with messages will have to devise strategies to draw attention.  Political
    attention, just like commercial attention, will have to be created.
    Ideology, self-interest, and public spirit are some factors.  But in many
    cases, attention needs to be bought, by providing entertainment, gifts,
    games, lotteries, coupons, and so on.  That, too, is expensive.  The basic
    cost of information is rarely the problem in politics; it's the packaging
    and distribution.
    Thirdly, effective politics on the Internet will require elaborate and
    costly data collection.  The reason is that Internet media operate
    differently from traditional mass media.  They will not broadcast to all
    but instead to specifically targeted individuals.  Instead of the broad
    stroke of political TV messages, "netcasted" politics will be customized
    to be most effective.  This requires extensive information about
    individuals' interests and preferences.  Data banks then become a key to
    political effectiveness.  Who would own and operate them?  In some cases
    the political parties.  But they could not maintain control over the data
    banks in the case of primary elections that are open to many candidates.
    There is also a privacy problem, when semi-official political parties
    store information about the views, fears, and habits of millions of
    individuals.  For both of those reasons the ability of parties to collect
    such data will be limited.
    Other political data banks will be operated by advocacy and interest
    groups.  They would then donate data to the candidate instead of money.
    The importance of such data banks would further weaken campaign finance
    laws and further strengthen interest group pluralism over traditional
    political parties.
    But in particular, political data banks will be maintained through private
    companies that are now known as political consultants.  They will
    establish permanent, proprietary data banks and become still bigger
    players in the political environment and operate increasingly as ideology-
    free, for-profit consultancies.
    Even if the use of the Internet makes some political activity cheaper, it
    does so for everyone, which means that all organizations will increase
    their activities rather than spend less on them.  Thus, any effectiveness
    of early adopters will soon be matched by their rivals and will simply
    lead to an accelerated, expensive, and mutually canceling political arms-
    race of investment in activist techniques and new-media marketing
    The early users of the Internet experienced a gain in their effectiveness,
    and now they incorrectly extrapolate this to society at large.  While such
    gain is trumpeted as the empowerment of the individual over Big Government
    and Big Business, much of it has simply been a relative strengthening of
    individuals and groups with computer and online skills (who usually have
    significantly above-average income and education) and a relative weakening
    of those without such resources.  Government did not become more
    responsive due to online users; it just became more responsive to them.
    The Internet will make reasoned political dialog more difficult
    True, the Internet is a more active and interactive medium than TV.  But
    is its use in politics a promise or a reality?
    Just because the quantity of information increases does not mean that its
    quality rises.  To the contrary.  As the Internet leads to more
    information clutter, it will become necessary for any message to get
    louder.  Political information becomes distorted, shrill, and simplistic.
    One of the characteristics of the Internet is disintermediation.  In
    politics, this leads to the decline of traditional news media and their
    screening techniques.  The acceleration of the news cycle by necessity
    leads to less careful checking, while competition leads to more
    sensationalism.  Issues get attention if they are visually arresting and
    easily understood.  This leads to media events, to the fifteen minutes of
    fame, to the sound bite, to infotainment.  The Internet also permits
    anonymity, which leads to last-minute political ambush.  The Internet
    lends itself to dirty politics more than the more accountable TV.
    While the self-image of the tolerant digital citizen persists, empirical
    studies of the content of several political usenet groups found much
    intolerant behavior:  domineering by a few, rude "flaming", and reliance
    on unsupported assertions.
    The Internet disconnects as much as it connects
    Democracy has historically been based on community.  Traditionally, such
    communities were territorial -- electoral districts, states, and towns.
    "Community", "communicate" -- the terms are related:  community is shaped
    by the ability of its members to communicate with each other.  If the
    underlying communications system changes, the communities are affected.
    As one connects in new ways, one also disconnects the old ways.  As the
    Internet links with new and far-away people, it also reduces relations
    with neighbors and neighborhoods.
    The long-term impact of cheap and convenient communication is a further
    geographic dispersal of the population and thus greater physical
    isolation.  At the same time, the enormous increase in the number of
    information channels leads to an individualization of mass media, and to
    On the other hand, the Internet also creates electronically linked new
    types of community.  But these are different from traditional communities.
    They have less of the averaging that characterizes physical communities --
    throwing together the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.  Instead,
    these new communities are more stratified along some common dimension,
    such as business, politics, or hobbies.  These groups will therefore tend
    to be issue-driven, more narrow-minded, and sometimes more extreme, as
    like-minded people reinforce each other's views.
    Furthermore, many of these communities will be owned by someone.  They are
    like a shopping mall, a gated community, with private rights to expel, to
    promote, and to censor.  The creation of community has been perhaps the
    main asset of Internet portals such as AOL.  It is unlikely that they will
    dilute the value of this asset by relinquishing control.
    If it is easy to join such virtual communities, it also becomes easy to
    leave, in a civic sense, one's physical community.  Community becomes a
    browsing experience.
    Information does not necessarily weaken the state
    Can the Internet reduce totalitarianism?  Of course.  Tyranny and mind
    control become harder.  But Internet romantics tend to underestimate the
    ability of governments to control the Internet, to restrict it, and indeed
    to use it as an instrument of surveillance.  How quickly we forget.  Only
    a few years ago, the image of information technology was Big Brother and
    mind control.  That was extreme, of course, but the surveillance potential
    clearly exists.  Cookies can monitor usage.  Wireless applications create
    locational fixes.  Identification requirements permit the creation of
    composites of peoples' public and private activities and interests.
    Newsgroups can (and are) monitored by those with stakes in an issue.
    Free access to information is helpful to democracy.  But the value of
    information to democracy tends to get overblown.  It may be a necessary
    condition, but not a sufficient one.  Civil war situations are not
    typically based on a lack of information.  Yet there is an undying belief
    that if people "only knew", for example, by logging online, they would
    become more tolerant of each other.  That is a wishful and optimistic
    hope, but is it based on history?  Hitler came to power in a republic
    where political information and communication were plentiful.
    Democracy requires stability, and stability requires a bit of inertia.
    The most stable democracies are characterized by a certain slowness of
    change.  Examples are Switzerland and England.  The U.S. operates on the
    basis of a 210-year-old Constitution.  Hence the acceleration of politics
    caused by the Internet is a two-edged sword.
    Electronic voting does not strengthen democracy
    The Internet enables electronic voting and hence may increase voter
    turnout.  But it also changes democracy from a representative model to one
    of direct democracy.
    Direct democracy puts a premium on resources of mobilization, favoring
    money and organization.  It disintermediates elected representatives.  It
    favors sensationalized issues over "boring" ones.  Almost by definition,
    it limits the ability to make unpopular decisions.  It makes harder the
    building of political coalition.  The arguments against direct democracy
    were made perhaps most eloquently in the classic arguments for the
    adoption of the U.S. Constitution by James Madison in the Federalist
    Papers #10.
    Electronic voting is not simply the same as traditional voting without the
    inconvenience of waiting in line.  When voting becomes like channel
    clicking a remote control, it is left with little of the civic engagement
    of voting.  When voting becomes indistinguishable from a poll, polling and
    voting merge.  With the greater ease and anonymity of voting, a market for
    votes is unavoidable.  Participation declines if people know the expected
    result too early, or where the legitimacy of the entire election is in
    Direct access to public officials will be phony
    Yes, anybody can fire off email messages to public officials and perhaps
    even get a reply, and this provides an illusion of access.  But the
    limited resource will still be scarce:  the attention of those officials.
    By necessity, only a few messages will get through.  Replies are canned,
    like answering machines.  If anything, the greater flood of messages will
    make gatekeepers more important than ever:  power brokers who can provide
    access to officials.  As demand increases while the supply is static, the
    price of access goes up, as does the commission to the middle-man.  This
    does not help the democratic process.
    Indeed, public opinion can be manufactured.  Email campaigns can
    substitute technology and organization for people.  Instead of grass roots
    one can create what has been described as "Astroturf", that is,
    manufactured expression of public opinion.
    Ironically, the most effective means of communication (outside of a bank
    check) becomes the lowest-tech:  the handwritten letter.
    If, in the words of a famous cartoon, on the Internet nobody knows that
    you are a dog, then everyone may be treated as one.
    The Internet facilitates international manipulation of domestic politics
    Cross-border interference in national politics becomes easier with the
    Internet.  Why negotiate with the U.S. ambassador if one can target a key
    Congressional chairman by an email campaign, chat group interventions,
    misinformation, and untraceable donations.  People have started to worry
    about computer attacks by terrorists.  They should worry more about state-
    sponsored interference in other countries' electronic politics.
    Indeed, it is increasingly difficult to conduct national politics in a
    globalized world where distance and borders are less important than in the
    past, even if one does not share Negroponte's hyperbole of the
    "evaporation" of the nation state.  The difficulty of societies to control
    their own affairs leads, inevitably, to backlash and regulatory
    It is easy to romanticize the past of democracy as Athenian debates in
    front of an involved citizenry, and to believe that its return by
    electronic means is nigh.  A quick look in the rear-view mirror at radio
    and then TV is sobering.  Here, too, the new media were heralded as
    harbingers of a new and improved political dialogue.  But the reality of
    those media has been one of cacophony, fragmentation, increasing cost, and
    declining value of "hard" information.
    The Internet makes it easier to gather and assemble information, to
    deliberate and to express oneself, and to organize and coordinate action.
    The Internet can mobilize hard-to-reach groups, and it has unleashed much
    energy and creativity.  Obviously there will be some shining success
    stories.  But it would be naive to cling to the image of the early
    Internet -- nonprofit, cooperative, and free -- and ignore that it is
    becoming a commercial medium, like commercial broadcasting that replaced
    amateur ham radio.  If anything, the Internet will lead to less stability,
    more fragmentation, less ability to fashion consensus, more interest-group
    pluralism.  High-capacity computers connected to high-speed networks are
    no remedies for flaws in a political system.  There is no quick techno-
    The Internet does not create a Jeffersonian democracy.  It will not revive
    Tocqueville's Jacksonian America.  It is not Lincoln-Douglas.  It is not
    Athens, nor Appenzell.  It is less of a democracy than those low-tech
    places.  But, of course, none of these places really existed either,
    except as a goal, a concept, an inspiration.  And in that sense, the hopes
    vested in the Internet are a new link in a chain of hope.  Maybe naive,
    but certainly ennobling.
    Goto table of contents
    Search Globally, Buy Locally
    Response to:  "Why I Never Buy Books from Amazon.com" (NF-90)
    From:  Phil Walsh (philw@microware.com)
    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
    Response to:  "Why I Never Buy Books from Amazon.com" (NF-90)
    From:  Bryce Muir (pegbryce@gwi.net)
    Amazon is a marvelous index of available books, and worth using for that
    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
    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
    Response to:  "Why I Never Buy Books from Amazon.com" (NF-90)
    From:  Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com)
    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.
    kirk@mcelhearn.com    http://www.mcelhearn.com
    Kirk McElhearn | 91 rue de la Mesangerie | 37540 St Cyr sur Loire |
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    Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #91 :: June 23, 1999
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