A few years ago, before I moved to California and my husband decamped with half our assets, I not only had plenty of money, I felt rich. It didn't last long--maybe two years--but while it was happening, I gained some experience that prepared me for, among other things, Internet shopping. As the yuletide approaches, Internet shopping seems even more tempting--private, leisurely, even cozy.
The first thing I bought as a rich person was a Lexus. Later on, I acquired a Chevrolet Suburban, a horse trailer and the horses to fill it, a very expensive house on a large piece of property, some art, a lot of clothes, two Mazda Miatas, wool carpeting, a hot tub, a granite counter for the kitchen island, and a 110-by-150-foot sand riding arena with a retaining wall made of railroad ties, not to mention a pension plan and an investment portfolio. Without realizing it, my husband and I got to be rather frantic. It turned out that not only did we have to spend time acquiring everything, we had to: a) make sure each thing was "right" and b) maintain it in a state of good repair.
Had I not been prepared by this experience, I might be tempted by Internet shopping, which is a system for getting more and more objects more and more efficiently into more and more hands; that is, a system for making each one of us feel as if he or she is rich.
In fact, I don't mind the shopping part, though it is far more awkward than visiting a store. Shopping on the Internet compares with going to a store much like doing research on the Internet compares with going to the library. You can leaf through many more books, flipping back and forth, reading a paragraph here and there, skipping the redundant parts, looking at titles and taking them off the shelves much more quickly than you can scroll through Web sites. Eyes and hands remain the most powerful search engine. A rack of jackets, say, presents a similar task. Start at the front of the size 10s and go to the back. Pause for a good look at three or four of them. It takes, maybe, five minutes. Compare this with scrolling through pages and pages of small pictures of jackets you cannot feel or try on and can barely make out on the screen.
Okay. At least I didn't have to get in my car and drive there. At least I didn't have to elbow my way past hordes of other shoppers. At least I didn't have to stand in long lines to pay. At least catalogues didn't come, duplicated and triplicated, in the mail. So what if my right arm and hand--the ones that guide the mouse--are killing me by the time I've ordered one jacket? I may not have saved time, but I have saved distance.
The shopping itself is not the horror, and it is remotely possible that something will be invented to make the shopping better. And also, let's say that I don't mind waiting several days to see my purchases, that I can give up the pleasant jolt of impulse buying and either weather or forget about any second thoughts I might have. The real horror of virtual shopping is not its virtuality, but its reality. Things are delivered. They come in boxes. They have weight and mass. They are no longer just symbols--pictures on a screen, a kind of communication and agreement, a mere transaction. In their boxes by the gate, my purchases are asking me to take them seriously, take them in, make use of them, take care of them. What have I done? I have allowed more stuff into my space.
A set of specious questions arises (is in fact printed on the return slip). Is it nice? Do I like it? Was it what I thought it was going to be? Is the quality good? The implication is that some other reason for returning this item isn't a very good one. I wish someone would add a line, "Purchasing and receiving this item was a tedious waste of time, and I am sending it back in order to minimize further frustration."
Quod erat demonstrandum. Here, I don't want to take custody of this thing, but it might rain, so I have to take it into the house just so I can bring it out again later and transport it to the post office and send it back. Or I can value time over money and just let it sit around the house until I die, at which point my children will have to take precious time away from their children and their vocations in order to dispose of all these things I never should have bought in the first place.
I suppose most people in America see buying as an opportunity. Personally, I don't mind "consuming" in the least, as long as what is "consumed" is actually consumed, like a nice Diet Coke or a four-pound pork roast cooked in the Caribbean style. Consuming involves a transfer of energy and a reduction of mass, as when two horses consume a bale of hay. Buying, however, cannot be actual consuming, and so constitutes simply the successful imposition of custodianship by one reluctant owner upon another. The Internet eliminates the middleman, thereby eliminating that many chances for the buyer to decline to take custody.
If you buy too many things on the Internet, then you are paying, not with money (everyone knows that money is increasingly just a fiction) but with time, the one thing you will never be able to buy on the Internet. Technology always promises to save time and actually consumes it. The paradigm of this process is the tractor. When tractors first came into agriculture, the promise was that the farmer wouldn't have to spend so much time in the fields. But in order to pay for the tractor, most farmers had to buy more land and grow more crops, which meant that more time was spent going more quickly through more farm work, and the net gain of time was negative. So it has been with the telephone, the computer, the cell phone, the automobile and everything else you can name. When I was rich, it didn't matter who I hired to help me or what I bought, I was always out of time, always working harder, always doing two or three things at once. That, right there, is the bottom-line promise of Internet shopping.
Our economy has a way of getting rid of perfectly good and useful items and processes without any of us ever giving permission, just as it is right now trying to get rid of the newspaper and the book. Of course, it is obvious that you can't read a novel on the Internet while taking a bath, or pick up someone's discarded hand-held computer and glance through a few articles while eating a burger down at the corner. I suppose that soon our economy will get rid of the department store, then maybe the grocery store, after it has gotten rid of freshness in food as a desirable concept. It's also true that those who have never had something don't miss it, just as my children don't miss the penny candy store I used to stop at every afternoon on my way home from elemen-tary school.
The tangibility of the world imposes limits on what we can do. We should welcome them rather than strive to invent ways to abrogate them. The most exquisite pleasures are not found in multitasking but in deep focus upon a single activity, not in striving to know everything at once, but in feeling one thing fully. The Internet is not an expanded mind, but a false mind that encourages the atrophy of the senses and the body, not to mention our perennial distraction by ever more factoid data.
When I was rich, my ability to buy outstripped my needs and even my desires, so that, like lots of recently rich people before me, I had to be educated first about what was available and then about what was good about it. Desire followed close behind, but a little dully. It came to be that I wanted certain things just because they were available, and when I got them they became immediately boring, and I went from not wanting expensive things to not wanting much at all. Maybe that is the promise of Internet shopping. If so, it's one I could go for.
Jane Smiley is the author, most recently, of "The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton: A Novel" (Fawcett Books).