The Enchanted Land of Infinite Finite Choices

Bryce Edwards, Flickr Creative Commons

(Note: The following dates from February 2021. I’m not sure why I never posted it, but it seems like a fairly decent rant.)

Fry’s Electronics announced last week that the brand has joined the ever-growing scrap heap of retail history. The extinct company is just the latest in the mass die off we’re witnessing thanks to corporate climate change.

The accepted narrative here is that the internet came along like an innovative, disruptive asteroid and killed off the lumbering dinosaurs. Fry’s stores certainly were mammoth–gigantic blimp hangars that in their prime were stuffed with CDs, DVDs, telescopes, cameras, vacuum cleaners, magazines, books, toys, telephones, televisions, candy, stereos, VCRs, printers, paper, computers, on and on. It’s probably faster to itemize the things one couldn’t buy in those joints, which is why the checkout counters were the length of football fields and sported two dozen cash registers and three cashiers. Run into Fry’s for a flash drive, walk out two hours later with your 10,000 steps for the day and a shopping cart filled with who knows what and a Toblerone.

E-commerce promised to disrupt that. No more wasting an afternoon walking around and impulse buying. Just think how much more time you’ll have for sitting on your couch all afternoon and impulse buying! Or maybe we’d use that time to make art, bond with children, get in shape, volunteer–the possibilities were endless. Once we were liberated from going places and doing things we’d have so much more free time to not go places and do things.

Liberating us from the drudgery of actually picking up items and looking at them wasn’t the only time saver that the internet promised. Imagine a world where you didn’t have to drive to your 8-5 job everyday! What will you do with all of that commuting time you saved? Why, you can use it to work! Congratulations, you’re now on the clock 24/7! Better stay on top of those emails!

Of course in those early days when “the Web” still seemed like a blessing rather than a curse, it only reached the length of a telephone line, and then later a network cable. “If only we could shrink this experience to pocket-size and make it wireless,” the innovative disruptors thought, “people could shop and work and stay in touch no matter where they are! Think of all of the time they’ll save not standing up and walking to their computer desks!” And thus was born the smartphone, which for no apparent reason must be replaced every 1-2 years.

All of this innovation and disruption was subsidized, by the way, by the United States government, and I’m not just talking about ARPANET, which you can’t look up in your encyclopedia because the internet did away with those, too. No, I’m talking about the massive tax breaks and the overt lack of oversight that allowed virtual megalodons to gobble up the brick and mortar retailers that in retrospect look more like minnows than whales.

That intentional lack of oversight doesn’t stop with the internet, by the way. Monopolies only thrive in a deregulated vacuum. Show me any megacorporation and I’ll show you a company that was allowed–sometimes even encouraged–to exploit an unfair advantage. Neither Google’s nor Amazon’s domination can be explained solely with those companies’ innovations. It’s no coincidence that Comcast is the only internet service provider to millions of American homes, either. Need to buy a casket for the dearly departed? The endless variety available to you comes from only two manufacturers.

We’re surrounded by a fairly small number of companies pretending to be a large number of companies who hide that fact by offering us what appear to be choices. Can’t choose whether to eat at Olive Garden, Yard House, Capital Grille, or LongHorn Steakhouse? It doesn’t really matter. You’ll be paying Darden Restaurants regardless. Can’t choose between Embassy Suites, Hampton Inn, or DoubleTree? Just go to Hilton. That’s what you’re doing anyway. Don’t get me started on Universal Music Group, the Pac-Man that gobbled up the record industry.

What’s the end game here? It seems like we’re quickly moving back to the era of the company town where the mill/mine/factory owned the store, the hospital, the houses only this time around the town is an entire nation. We’ll work for the company because there’s nowhere else to work, and we’ll work a lot because what else are we going to do? We’ll shop at the company’s online store because there’s nowhere else to shop. We’ll pay for their insurance and in exchange be offered shoddy telemedicine. We’ll get our news from the company’s new source, eat the company’s food, and be buried in one of 50 elegant caskets manufactured and sold by the company.

If we complain we’ll be shouted down as enemies of free trade, or Luddites who fear the great innovations brought forth by the disruptors. And then we’ll click on one of 25 toilet paper choices and watch one of the 50 streaming services all owned by the company.

And we’ll have nowhere to go and nothing to do that doesn’t put money in the pockets of the one remaining company and we’ll like it, because it will feel like our choice.

Categories: op-ed

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