Prospect Cyberspace column

Prospect Cyberspace column

Andrew Brown Tuesday, 30 December 1997

1998 is going to be the year in which everyone tries buying stuff over the net — once. In a selfless way, I have been shopping for you all last year: that’s what I told my wife, in any case, when the coffee mug arrived from to thank me for my custom. advertises as "the world’s biggest bookstore". It may in fact be the world’s smallest, since it contains no books at all; only a network of computers across the road from one of the biggest book wholesalers in America. But it has a huge and very easily searchable catalogue — often I use it as a substitute for a library catalogue when I want to find books on a specific subject, even if I do not buy them. Distressingly often, I do buy them, especially since Amazon introduced "one-click shopping": it has always been easy to buy books there, with a minimum of forms to fill out, but now there is a button in the catalogue pages for regular customers which enables us to order a book shipped to our usual address with one mouse click. It makes me feel like one of those rats which are given a button in their cage wired to the pleasure centre in the brain. They click and click until they die of starvation and so will I if I keep visiting.

It is a curious fact of web economics that Amazon is losing money by driving its devoted customers broke too. Most of its books are deeply discounted in competition with Barnes and Noble, a truly giant chain of American book stores, which is also on the Web and tends to be even cheaper. I have only ever bought one book there (Kitty Kelley’s Royals, which Amazon would not sell to English customers), but they send huge and attractive catalogues as a follow-up to every customer. My seven-year-old daughter observes Advent all year round with book catalogues, helpfully ringing everything in them she would like us to buy. "Daddy", she said, looking up from this one "What’s the Gay Kama Sutra?" I can guard her against finding nasty stuff on the Internet, but how am I meant to protect her against that?

A world where all the vineyards are on the Internet is surely coming, and when it arrives no one will ask what use computers are, except with a hiccup and a giggle. If I can buy delicious wine from a chateau in Bordeaux for 20 francs a bottle, why can’t I order it delivered here for three pounds a bottle? The reason I believe this will happen is that it does not depend on advances in computer technology or phone lines, so much as a network of reliable courier firms and post offices. That is much easier to believe in. There are wine merchants who sell by mail order already, even though it is difficult to think of anything which one would more like to try before buying. A quick search found three which had impressive Web shops. Unfortunately, the nearest was in Dublin: the other two were in Northern California and Sydney, Australia, so we ended up gong to Oddbins as usual.

The world wine web ( has banner ads that make slurping noises as they change from offering Chateau Latour to Chablis; it provides a tantalising glimpse into the future. It lists thousands of chateaux, though not Vieux Pinson, which is the tiny one I was looking for. However, very few have web pages. One exception is Chateau Latuc in Cahors, run by an English couple, Colin and Penny Duns, who do indeed ship their wine to England at around £50 a case; or you can save money by popping over the channel and picking your cases up at a railway station.

There are still some obstacles to a world in which anyone can buy anything anywhere from a modem. The hardest to overcome are physical. What is worth buying by mail order has to be fairly easily shipped. Books, CDs, software, and the tender bits inside a computer can all be sensibly bought from California. Large and bulky things like monitors or wine can not, or not yet. But all the really off-putting obstacles are down to software. is one of the few sites which organises its goods in ways that a human being would see them arranged, rather than the ways most obvious to a database programmer. In a real shop, I can see large numbers of goods at one time, and I can easily examine more closely any that take my fancy. Even if they are in boxes or bottles, I can find out lots about them from the labelling. If that fails, I can ask an assistant. Try doing any of those things in a virtual shop, and you will understand why I predict this will be the year when everyone goes shopping on the Internet — once.

Still, there are things the Net does worse than shopping. I tried, enrolling in a course on consciousness at the University of Arizona for six weeks: in exchange for a credit card number, they sent me a password to a web site where all the course materials and discussions were stored. It was a disaster. Perhaps, if I had had more experience, I would have done better; but I found it impossible to discover even what I was supposed to be learning. The web site itself was slick, complicated, and crashed frequently. After about ten visits I just gave up; but this is hardly surprising. Shopping involves a much more limited range of transactions than teaching, so it is much easier to squeeze down the phone lines.

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