Change occurs these days at a pace so extreme that Superman's speeding bullet seems a slow boat to China. Just when you've replaced all the old LPs with CDs, along come DVDs; you've finally gotten a handle on 5 percent of Windows 95, and here's Windows 98, which of course already is outmoded; you learned--at last!--how to play a movie on your VCR, and now the stores are filled with videodiscs.
It's amazing, yet everything pales by comparison with the rise of the Internet. Not five years ago--February 1996, to be exact--it was declared in this space that the Web "may be a great big wonderful world out there, but it is not for me"; nine months later I caved in pretty as you please, going so far as to take "Webman" as my new moniker; today I am here in my latest persona, Web rat.
Probably you don't need to be told that this holiday season, journalism's obsession is the overnight explosion of the Web marketplace. What only a few months ago seemed a pipe dream is now a multibillion-dollar industry that is having extraordinary global economic impact and is altering the lives of ordinary people--as well as the larger society and culture they inhabit--in ways that are, at this point, quite literally incalculable.
What does seem certain is that online shopping will intensify the "Walkman effect," which invites people to leave public spaces and retreat into private ones created by technological change. Like listening to a CD through a set of earphones, shopping on the Web is a solitary act. If one is inclined to worry (as I am) about the ways in which this will heighten the self-containment and self-centeredness that are so characteristic of contemporary life, then it is hard to be cheerful about it.
There are other matters about which to be concerned. It is delightful to avoid sales taxes on Web purchases, but as was pointed out on the op-ed page of this newspaper last week, revenue from those taxes pays for many essential state and local services; however one may feel about the regressive nature of sales taxes, it remains that the public is in for a shock when it suddenly learns that the money isn't there for services it takes for granted. By the same token, the threat the Web poses to the conventional retail marketplace is all too real; many stores both large and small doubtless will find ways to adjust and adapt, but the fallout will be huge, in lost jobs, vacant stores and (again) lower sales-tax revenues.
But at this point in the Web's history, it borders on insanity to shop for many products, both big-ticket and small, anywhere else. The Web marketplace is complicated, and you have to devise strategies for it; some purchases seem cheaper than they really are, while others are extraordinary bargains, and it takes a while to learn which is which. But the cold hard truth is this: Eliminating the middleman is tough on the middleman, but it pays great benefits for the consumer.
That became clear to me when, in the late winter of 1997, I bought a new car through a Web site called Autobytel; though the transaction required me to stop at a dealer's showroom, the details were arranged online and the savings (in hassle as well as money) were considerable. By then I had become a regular customer at CDNow.com; waiting a few days for mail delivery of compact discs struck me as small payment for the convenience, the selection and the price.
Yet CDNow also underscores, however inadvertently, the other side of the Web: Its "Classical Search" engine is cumbersome and misleading and as inefficient as a line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Though the big search operations (Yahoo, AltaVista, et al.) are improving their service, activity inside discrete Web sites can be frustrating (I gave up on Williams-Sonoma in a few minutes) or can lead to dead ends (as happened to me recently at L.L. Bean).
Establishing oneself as a Web customer takes more time than a phone call, but once you've filed your information at the site, you can get to the checkout counter in a hurry on return trips; you're not on hold for half an hour, listening endlessly to that smarmy lie, "Your call is important to us . . . ," and you don't have to put yourself at the mercy of a bored or rude telephone salesperson. Too, as no Web customer needs to be told, waiting for a page to download can tax one's patience every bit as much as that DMV line, and it can be infuriating to see "Done" at the bottom of the screen when nothing has been done at all.
But this Web shopper is here to say that thanks to the Sears site and another called Netmarket.com, major appliances for our new-kitchen-in-progress cost about $1,000 less than we'd anticipated; that a few clicks at a search engine led me to exactly the right hard-to-find gift for a certain person; that the Advantage site now sends me monthly e-mail reminders about the dogs' flea treatment, a household duty I routinely used to forget; that Gonzo cleaning products, absolutely essential to any household inhabited by dogs, can be ordered in a trice through Gonzocorp.com; that . . .
No, the Web isn't perfect. When a page freezes in mid-download, or a search produces everything except what you're looking for, the temptation to scream can be nearly irresistible. But resist it. This brave new world really is brave, really is new, and really is a world all its own.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.