The analog hole
In April 2000, one of my editors forwarded the latest press release he'd received announcing a new online sales site with an exasperated note: "Who would buy shoes on the internet?"
Then, as now, my personal collection of shoes encompassed a couple of pairs of Merrell Jungle Mocs and several pairs of tennis shoes in varying degrees of growing decreptitude. They had all been bought online, from LL Bean and Tennis Warehouse, both long-time catalogue sellers newly enwebbed. You know the shoe, you know the size, what's to see? A friend with a gigantic teenaged son weighed in: "Try finding size 15 men's shoes in London for under £70."
My own limit - I thought - was prescription glasses to correct substantial myopia and astigmatism. I have lousy eyesight but great visual acuity. I can see differences eye doctors acknowledge are there "but you can't see it" ("And yet, that's why I came in"), and consequently my eyes are tricky to correct. A small difference in angle or positioning can turn crystal clarity into "Is that a cat?" I have long since learned to avoid mass-market opticians. Yet this year, with only a small prescription change and no time to visit the skilled, US-based local optician who does get it right, when I read about an ultra-cheap online outlet on Slashdot and found it was excellently designed I thought it was worth an experiment. Four days ago I received in the post a pair of new glasses with a Chinese shipping label. They are perfect.
I think it was the New Yorker writer Ken Auletta who said something to the effect that if your industry hadn't been disrupted by Google it was about to be disrupted by Google. Swap out Google in favor of the internet more generally, and even an optician in a small central Pennsylvania town isn't safe - with all the knock-on effects to their suppliers. What large companies can do to save money by transferring their manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor we can all now do individually. The internet democratizes outsourcing.
It might be more accurate to call it "internet-plus". The "plus" refers to the fact that the internet can only do its enablement when the infrastructure is already in place: it doesn't actually make or ship the glasses. Bits, however perfectly formed, cannot make me see better. So, sitting with my new, perfect glasses that cost less than a quarter of what they would have cost locally, here's the question: what is the real price of allowing the infrastructure that keeps me able to see clearly to be exported to China? The answer to that can't be captured by counting lost sales tax/VAT or empty shops on the High street. I have not researched the economics of opticians, but my guess is that services like eye tests and general care are like the money theatres make from showing movies, and making and selling glasses is the popcorn and fizzy drinks. In defense of the fact that I will probably order a second, spare pair, I might argue that the influx of name designers into eyeglasses abruptly doubled the price of what had up until then been a reasonable biannual cost. You might reply that I handled that by wearing the same frames for more than a decade until they wore out, replacing lenses as needed. You would be right. These are my first new frames since 2004.
There's a parallel here to a discussion of copyright, specifically digital rights management, that I also attended this week. Many of the decisions we've made at all levels about the internet and digital technologies generally were based on the idea that they were experimental media. Given the number of copies of Alice in Wonderland in the world, it's hard to see the damage if a publisher issues an ebook version that is protected with DRM. If it's one publisher and one ebook, maybe none because there are so many alternatives. I can't take my new glasses into the online shop and ask for adjustments, but I can take them apologetically to the local optician and offer to pay for his time. If the hardware required to read my ebook of Alice dies in 25 years, where do I go to get it fixed? Must I replace my entire library every time an ebook supplier goes bust?
This is what happens as we put more and more reliance on the "experimental" infrastructure: the alternatives wither through disuse. At that point, what has effectively happened is that a work that was in the public domain and readily accessible has been privatized - a different type of export. In this case, the infrastructure we rely on for ideas and access to culture has become as remote and inaccessible as a China-based optician. What's needed is to stop thinking of the digital world as a new "alternative" and accept that for many people, especially those under 35, it is the primary infrastructure, and the hole where the analog precursor used to be is the alternative. This means a profound change in how we think about the policy decisions we're making: they're not temporary any more. As a friend said when he turned 47, "I've realized that the things in my life I thought were penciled in are permanent."
Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.