Four inches of metal strapping for 37 cents

In the summer of 1996 I presented a series on CBC Radio’s Island Morning program, produced by Ann Thurlow, called Consumed by Technology. I’ve managed to recover the audio of the episodes, along with the “show notes” and transcripts, from The Wayback Machine and I’m posting each episode here for posterity.

This first episode of Consumed by Technology focused on the coming of the commercial realm to the Internet; it aired on July 9, 1996. Wayne Collins was the host.

It’s hard to believe that only two years ago we were talking about the Internet as a lofty academic sort of place where you could do things like search the Library of Congress catalogue and read research papers on fruit fly migration patterns. The business world has now discovered the Internet and it’s as if a giant shopping mall has suddenly moved in next door to the old “Internet public library.”

Show Notes

These are the original links that I released with the episode; each is a link to the Internet Archive’s cache of the site at the time.

Transcript

INTRO: It’s hard to believe that only two years ago we were talking about the Internet as a lofty academic sort of place where you could do things like search the Library of Congress catalogue and read research papers on fruit fly migration patterns.

The business world has now discovered the Internet and it’s as if a giant shopping mall has suddenly moved in next door to the old “Internet public library.”

In the first of a new series we call “Consumed by Technology,” Peter Rukavina joins me now to talk about “going shopping in cyberspace.”

QUESTION: So business has jumped online…?

ANSWER: Yes, in a very, very big way. As you suggested, it’s hard to believe that just a couple of years ago there was still raging debate about whether even mentioning something vaguely commercial-sounding on the Internet was acceptable. Many long-time Internet users — people in universities and colleges and governments — were convinced that if the Internet “sold out” to business, it would loose the sort of fuzzy, anarchic “information sharing” feeling that had developed over 20 years of being something of a “secret nerds-only club.”

Now, all that’s changed and you’d be hard pressed to find a business, small or large, that isn’t on the Internet right now or in the processing of getting there.

QUESTION: Now when you say that a business is “on the Internet,” what does that mean?

ANSWER: That can mean many things. What it usually boils down to is something called a “home page” which is really just a starting place, a “page one” for a business’ electronic presence.

Some businesses just have a very simple home page: they list their address and telephone number, have a paragraph about what it is they do, maybe a picture or two of their building or their products and that’s it.

Other businesses dive in with both feet and have thousands of pages of product information, online order forms, lifestyle magazines, contests and whatever else they can dream up to get people to come to their Internet site and hang around for a while.

No matter how extensive their Internet presence is, most businesses are trying to do two things online: first, to generally build their “brand identity” and second to “sell stuff.”

QUESTION: By “selling stuff” do you mean something along the lines of “electronic catalogue shopping?”

ANSWER: I can answer that best with a couple of examples. I must admit to being something of an “home shopping” cynic. I’ve never been one to order things from the “Home Shopping Channel” and I’m not really a catalogue shopper. But recently I’ve become something of an bona fide “online shopper” so I can tell you some real life “stories from the field” to give you some idea what it’s actually like.

For me, online shopping really works for three things: buying CDs and tapes, buying books, and buying computer software. Lately I’ve found myself doing each of these at least a couple of times a month.

QUESTION: When you talk, for example, about buying a book online, explain to me how the process actually works.

ANSWER: Well, typically I’ll have a specific book in mind. I’ve not really found the Internet a very good place to browse around for books — it lacks the “feel” of a genuine good bookstore.

So with my specific book in mind, I’ll dial up the Internet, go to a online bookstore’s “home page” and select the option to search their catalogue of books. I can enter a title, or an author, or a subject and get a list on my screen of all the books in their store that fit the bill.

One example: a couple of months ago I rented the movie “Speechless”, which is about a man and woman set inside the centre of a U.S. federal election. She manages the Republican campaign, he manages the Democrat campaign… somehow they meet and fall in love and get married.

Now I knew this was all based on a true story and I’d read somewhere that the two “real people” had written a book about it. But I had no idea who they were. To find the answer to that question, I relied on a low-tech solution and phoned my brother Steve. When he heard what I was looking for, he immediately said “oh, you mean the book by James Carville and Mary Matalin…”.

So I had my answer.

Now, being the home shopping cynic that I am, the first thing I did was phone my local bookstore. No sense in buying something online if I can just go down the block. I told them I was looking for a book by James Carville and Mary Matalin that has something to do with the U.S. election.

They searched in their computer and nothing came up.

They looked on their microfiche and there was nothing there.

They suggested, perhaps, that no such book existed.

They sort of sounded like maybe I was bothering them and I should leave.

So I did. And I went home and sat down at my computer and decided it was time to give online shopping a whirl.

I ended up at a bookstore called “amazon.com” (which, I later found out, is somewhere in Seattle).

From their “home page”, I clicked on “search our catalogue, ” entered “Carville, James” in the blank, clicked on “Search Now,” and, a couple of seconds later, the titles of seven books were listed on my screen, including three different versions of why I came to know was called “All’s Fair: Love, War and Running for President” — paperback, hardcover, and audio cassette.

I clicked on “Audio Cassette” and then “Buy Items Now”, entered my name, mailing address, and credit card number, told them how I wanted the book shipped and that was it. A week later the book was waiting for me at the post office.

Sub’ in CDs and tapes for books, and the process works much the same way.

QUESTION: When I hear you talk about giving your credit card number out over the Internet, alarm bells go off in my head… is that something that’s safe and secure?

ANSWER: It depends on who you talk to. And it all depends on who you give it out to. Nothing that passes through the Internet is ever 100% secure. There will always be someone, somewhere, trying to get at that information and use it for evil purposes. Just as there will always be people breaking into houses and people stealing cars.

But just as you can put a deadbolt on your front door, you can be careful about how you give out “secret” information — like your credit card number — online. Most Internet stores operate something called a “secure server.” This means, in essence, that when any information you send form your computer to their computer over the Internet, it’s encrypted so that, even it is intercepted somewhere along the line, it will be useless gibberish.

Now encryption has been around for a long, long time. But encrypting credit card numbers and the like on the Internet has only been around for a little more than a year, so it’s not exactly what you would call a “mature” technology. That said, there are thousands of people now buying thousands of things every day online and it’s rare if ever that you hear of a major security problem. Pretty soon places like Mastercard and Visa and the major banks will be getting into the game themselves and, presumably, things will only get more secure.

But there will always be a risk. I feel about as comfortable in typing my credit card number over the Internet as I do in giving it to some anonymous order clerk at a toll-free catalogue order desk; I know there’s some risk, but I’m willing to take the small risk for the convenience it offers.

QUESTION: You mentioned buying computer software over the Internet — is that any different that buying books or CDs?

ANSWER: The real difference is not in the actual ordering — that works pretty much the same — the real difference comes in the delivery. Whereas a book or a CD is sitting in some large warehouse somewhere in Seattle and has to be physically shipped from there to here, computer software is, quite literally, invisible. Software is digital information, and the Internet moves digital information, so the neat thing about buying software online is that you can get it delivered right over the Internet.

Enter your name and credit card number and the software you order gets automatically transferred to your computer where you can set it up and use it right away. This is true whether it’s a word processor or a spreadsheet or the latest video game.

QUESTION: Instant delivery, in other words…?

ANSWER: Not exactly instant. If you’ve ever bought a piece of software from a store, you know that often it comes on upwards of 10 or 20 floppy disks, each which holds quite a lot of information. To squeeze that amount of information over the Internet takes a bit of time. I recently ordered a scheduling program over the Internet, for example, and it took about 45 minutes to transfer from the store’s computer to mine. So it’s not quite instant, but it’s a lot easier than getting in my car and driving to Seattle.

QUESTION: Should Island retailers fear this losing business to these new “cyberstores?”

Yes and no. I think retailers in general, no matter where they are located, are going to have to start looking at their competition not as the guy down the street but the guy — or the thousands of guys — all around the world.

As much as I’d like to be able to buy locally, why should I order a book or a CD or a piece of software from someone down the street with a poor selection, grumpy staff and high prices when I can get great selection, responsive staff and decent prices online?

There are obviously some businesses that have to worry more than others. I don’t think buying furniture or tractors or heads of lettuce online is going to take off anytime soon — there are certain things that people are, I think, always going to want to pick up or kick the tires of. But if you’re selling something which is pretty generic — books and CDs and software yes, but also everything from jeans to modems to tea towels — being quick and lean and very customer friendly is going to become more and more important or you’re going to find your customers “going to Seattle.”

Or to a new upstart just around the corner with a low-rent warehouse, a big computer and zero overhead.

What the Internet cannot offer, and what I don’t think it will ever be able to offer, is the feeling that comes from truly amazing customer service be real friendly local people.

Perhaps the best example of the this for me came up last summer. It was Saturday night at 7:30 and we were in the middle of renovating our bathroom and we needed 4 inches of metal strapping before we could continue. I got in my car a drove up to Bobby Clow’s store in Hampshire before he closed at 8 o’clock and, sure enough, he had metal strapping. Now a whole roll was about 100 feet or 1000 feet and cost about 12 or 15 dollars. I only needed 4 inches. No matter. Bobby snipped off 4 inches and charged me 37 cents and I was on my way.

I don’t think I’m in any hurry to look for 4 inches of metal strapping for 37 cents on the Internet.

EXTRO: Peter Rukavina operates Digital Island in Kingston. He’ll be back next week for another in the series “Consumed by Technology.”

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