the disappearing retail

Borders the “bricks-and-mortar” bookstore went bankrupt last week. After more than a decade since the first online shopping sites opened up, the physical retail store is finally taking mortal blows. Well, not all physical retail stores — some survived by successfully running their own online sites. But let’s not overly distinguish between such apparent survival and those that fail, since this mere issue of ownership doesn’t change the facts.

On the one hand, this development is a milestone triumph of digital efficiency and convenience, something I greatly appreciate. On the other hand, I — and it seems many others — can’t seem to muster the schadenfreude over the demise of a bookstore. Doesn’t seem right, but why?

A digression. What exactly do retail stores sell? They sell objects of value. Some objects have value only in their physical form — food, clothes, utensils, machines, wood, whatever. Then there are objects that derive value primarily from the intellectual property embodied, the physical form being but a representation — books, newspapers, magazines, music, movies, even toys. Retail stores that sell the first class of objects haven’t gone out of business even now. There is some convenience to shopping online but there is still need to “check out” the object in question and take delivery of it, so the retail store isn’t superseded; some stores just made the retail locations a bona fide delivery point; over all the transition was incremental. Initially, retail stores that sell physical embodiments of intellectual property followed the same path. But then, purely digital devices happened — mp3 players, phones, e-readers, tablets — and the physical embodiment got stripped from the latter class of objects like chaff. I think it was this step that made the huge difference. Now what is sold is a digital object — in other words, the object sold got swapped out; the physical store became superfluous if you were only after the intellectual property, because it sold something else, and the differences in cost of delivery made physical stores untenable.

Back to why bookstores closing doesn’t feel great. Could it be nostalgia for the old fashioned paper form-factor? I’ve always felt that e-readers just aren’t that great yet, not a replacement of a book from many perspectives, except on the question of weight and volume. But this is minor. Then what about the next question, does a physical bookstore mean anything more than a warehouse of paper? The answer is affirmative. A bookstore, like a library, takes on the role of a commons.

If not enough people buy paper books, bookstores will close down, and that’s a shared loss. Whereas before, people pooled for a common good by paying more for paper books, now, for each person’s convenience, there will be something less for everyone. I don’t think this is the desired outcome. A lot of the conversion to electronic and digital forms is really a conversion to a more personal living style. Nowadays there is still the supermarket and coffee shops where you must get your objects in physical form, but imagine a day when none of these are necessary, when all objects have been digitized, Second Life style. Then there would be no physical stores for anything, and no need to physically be anywhere or interact. This social withdrawal is a profound yet perverse aspect of digitization, long predicted to happen, but the first steps of which we are seeing now. Is Google+ or Facebook going to be adequate replacement to glue people together? (If so, they had better get their “entire social experience” model right.)

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