Wednesday, 4 November 2015


Does Not Compute

If yesterday Inc. had announced the launch of a virtual bookstore that played out like a first person shooter game in which browsers’ avatars could wander the aisles, mingle with other users and examine virtually every publication on the shelves, I would not have been surprised. Instead, Amazon opened a traditional bookstore out of left field in Seattle. That surprised me.

If urban sprawl and the proliferation of suburban malls reconfigured our downtown main streets, Amazon reconfigured everything again, our malls and our rebounded, increasingly specialized and eclectic main streets. Whether you’re standing on polished tile or a cement sidewalk, the evidence of e-tail is all around: How much is that FOR LEASE sign in the papered over window? Amazon for some is the epitome of competitive convenience, for others it is a lethal disease. Amazon’s u-turn on its relentlessly efficient business model is akin to the Romans scattering salt over the sacked, razed and smoking site of Carthage, just rubbing it in.

A form of mechanized print existed in the Far East long before Johannes Gutenberg jury-rigged a wine press in 1449 or 50. I know this because a lot of the time I spent in advertising was spent spending clients’ money on paper and ink; I learned very quickly that I’d better fully understand what I was talking about. I grew up being read to at bedtime. My favourite authors are dead but the library keeps growing because there’s so much more to know about so many subjects. I cannot imagine my existence without a couple of books and a few magazines on the go.

I like the weight and feel of a book’s cover and pages as I read it. I like to handle them and examine them before I buy them. While I know a store’s layout is designed to draw me in and lead me around, at least I feel like an individual as I spend my money in my town and not the subject of an algorithmic crawl: YOU MAY ALSO LIKE… OTHER PEOPLE WHO HAVE PURCHASED… Fuck off and thank you for your valued input; I can create my own consumer tangents, thank you very much. Online shopping is like filling out a form, it’s just no fun. (Whereas impaired online shopping can be fun but catastrophic.)

Perhaps the Amazon brains trust in Seattle has glommed onto the fact that virtual shopping is incapable of providing the sensory experience of actual shopping. And perhaps it’s fitting that Amazon’s business model u-turn experiment is in sense a circle, the site went live selling books. The overarching trend in modern business that I’ve picked up on is that successful, established firms are prone to stray disastrously from their core expertise, their very foundation. Not Kodak stubbornly sticking by 35 mm analogue dreams so much as McDonald’s pitching salads and lattes. And so there’s a niggling sense with Amazon that once the original corporate leadership transitions out of the corner office somebody newly senior will ponder the launch of the Amazon bookstore and decide that appliance shops and clothing stores are obvious next steps.

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