Buying time

E-shopping promises salvation, but Ziauddin Sardar isn't sold on the idea

Shopping, as we all know, is much more than a mere cultural experience. It is an existential ritual. It confirms we are alive. "I shop, therefore I am" is the watchword of our time. It is the source of our identity in a society that identifies us by our accumulation, presentation of and indulgence in material goods. In these postmodern times, where we shop and what we buy defines who we are, what we are, where we are coming from and where we are going to. Shopping unites the increasingly fragmented bits of ourselves: we shop to complete the self.

But there is a serious problem with shopping. We actually hate it, as a recent poll by the Royal Mail confirms. We would rather do the crossword puzzle than hit the shops. Indeed, shopping has become so stressful, that most of us prefer to work late at the office than go shopping. But go we must, particularly when it is Christmas.

If shopping is hateful, then Christmas shopping compounds all the inherent tensions and stresses of incipient postmodern existence. It confronts us with all our inadequacies - existential, corporeal and financial. It is the ultimate ordeal of heaving crowds. It is the constant rebuff from harassed, rude attendants uttering the dread words, "Please pay at the cash desk" - words that consign us to demeaning penal colonies of interminable queues.

Even more hateful, Christmas shopping is the acute commodified quandary writ large. Hours standing bemused and distracted to the point of dementia: will this one or that one be exactly the thing Great-uncle Mordecai will be delighted to return as soon as the shops re-open? Hours of foot-slogging to the point of certainty that bipedalism is a flawed system of locomotion. Hours of "Oh what the hell, it'll do", knowing full well it will not. Then, moments of demonic possession, the kind that impels a theme spree, selecting one trendy novelty idea to serve all: "Uzbek goat's cheese! Yes! This will be the year of Uzbek goat's cheese!" Your certainty as purchaser will probably only be equalled by the bafflement of the recipient.

One is confronted with abundance of everything, defying all rational and deductive powers of selection, taste and judgement. And you do it every year, like clockwork, setting new achievement records each and every time in conspicuously redundant consumer excess.

But now, it seems, we have a comprehensive, not to say simple and elegant, solution to the central problem of western existence. Virtually perfect e-shopping. Technology has finally been put to the service of humanity and we can now shop from the comfort of our homes. This Christmas, the Internet, the biggest shopping mall in the world, is open for business. Get on the web, and get anything you want. Or, if you prefer, push your way to the front of the queue with Open, the interactive shopping experience of digital television.

With e-shopping it can be Christmas every day of the year. You can shop in delectable peace and security, from your favourite armchair, and find just what you are looking for. Since e-shopping can be done at any moment of leisure any time, at any hour of the day or night, there is no need for frantic panic decisions. Selections can be calm and rational, appropriate and thoughtful. Indeed, some Internet vendors will thoughtfully help you with even more ideas on what to get for whom. They may even prompt you to treat yourself to a personal reward for all the money you are saving on train, bus and taxi fares, petrol and parking, and those stops for a quick coffee and a reviving bite to eat.

Above all else, e-shopping means transcending the existentialist's ultimate conclusion. Was it Pirandello or Sartre who so succinctly summed it all up: "Hell is other people"? In e-shopping there is only you. At long last, the destination, the evolutionary pinnacle has been attained: individual freedom and total personification, unrestrained, untrammelled aloneness with everything at your disposal. All you have to do is to click on the appropriate buttons and than wait for your goods to be delivered to your front door.

But while e-shopping solves certain problems, it creates others. E-shopping denies us sublimation. What e-shopping gives as comfort it takes away as time. There is the endless frustration of logging on, clicking your way through useless web pages only to realise you forgot to bookmark the one site you really need to use. Then the wait, and it can be considerable, for the goods to arrive. This languorous yet fretful interlude extends without resolving the uncertainty principles of shopping.

We are denied the instant gratification of staggering home, fingers bisected by the handles of laden plastic bags. These characteristic stigmata console; they are proof of the no-pain, no-gain thesis of shopping as purgatory. E-shopping allows no tangible confirmation that you have fulfilled the primal urge. It gives you even less idea of the effect the whole procedure has had on your bank balance. Is it real money when you click goods into virtual shopping baskets?

We have so much experience of the problems of catalogue shopping that e-shopping should give us pause. Who does not know that things never materialise through the letterbox resembling their pictures in shape, size or qualitative expectation? Indestructible items always arrive in several small pieces. Bargains often turn out to be junk.

E-shopping performs all the mechanics of the process without any of the elation or spiritual highs of the conventional variety. For all its pressing of buttons, it lacks the old tactile satisfaction of touching and feeling the goods. It denies the spiritual effect of sitting in a crumpled heap on the Tube surrounded by the visible evidence of one's share of abundance, or, painfully, spinally challenged, of loading it into the boot of the car by the bagful.

And there is absolutely no substitute for endlessly trying on different clothes and smugly walking out of the shop without buying anything. With e-shopping, only a machine knows you are there and cares not when you huff off-line underwhelmed. E-shopping takes cognisance that shopping is hateful, only to misunderstand why hell is other people. Consequently it produces an even more hellish resolution.

Christmas shopping, or indeed any shopping, is hateful because it is no longer shopping. It is merchandising. It demeans our humanity by reducing us to rampant materialism. It reshapes our physical environment and human consciousness into arid landscapes. The out-of-town, purpose-built, one-stop malls that are palaces of merchandising are also ugly temples to materialism. Merchandising has remodelled our high streets into barricaded enclaves that are difficult to access and are of no use for anything except merchandising.

Merchandising is a transaction, an impersonal be and do what you want to, to which everyone else is indifferent. And that is what makes hell out of other people, their indifference to your existence and essential humanity. Merchandising takes the human contact out of humanity and replaces it with jostling through faceless crowds. It tells you to invent who you would like to be, rather than rooting you in recognition of who you really are. It is a game, a role-playing where material things masquerade as your humanity. And that's why we hate it.

E-shopping takes merchandising to a higher personal level. Now it's just you, in your isolated loneliness, the computer, and all the faceless shops of the world.

Shopping used to be something different. It used to be a social relationship. Remember corner shops, remember family stores? In such places one interacted with vendors who spoke to you civilly, who knew who you were and cared that your requirements were met to your satisfaction.

Shops were places for interaction and reaction, human contact. Places people stopped and talked to each other, chewed over the gossip. Shopping was not one-dimensional, self-transactional wish fulfilment (with all the unwelcome psychological overtones verging on narcissism and self-abuse). It was closer involvement in community while acquiring the necessities of material existence. It was not performance art of the person; it was face-to-face encounters where human contact, not dead objects, told us who we were and made sense of other people.

That is why I love shopping at my local, mostly Asian, stores. The families of shopkeepers and assistants are always inveterate chatters. Here, you will find gossip without parallel. And these are people inordinately interested in who and what you are. They will quiz you, in depth, in pertinent detail as they manoeuvre you among the available goods. As they learn of your circumstances and problems, they negotiate you to sensible choices as well as delightful indulgences. By the end of the process, if you have properly entered into the relationship, they will offer to give you a discount. This is not the merchandiser's prominent ploy to make you part with more money. It is the individual shopper's earned reward for polite and entertaining social engagement, a gift from the vendor. It is shopping as vindication of humanity and interconnectedness, a relationship that makes you appreciate other people, who appreciate you right back.

So shop till you drop in malls of your choice or e-shop in your aloneness if you must and secure the end of civilisation as human community. But give me human scale and human contact every time.

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 29 November 1999 issue of the New Statesman, An explosion of puffery