TCS Daily


The Engineers Who Saved Christmas

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - December 14, 2004 12:00 AM

Another Hollywood storyline died this week. And good riddance.

You're sure to know the plot, which has appeared in countless lame movies and sitcom episodes: Dad (it's always Dad) struggles though crowds and horror in a desperate quest to buy the last available unit of whatever the hot holiday toy is. Hilarity ensues as he goes from one store to another braving crowds, traffic, and long lines only to face one disappointment after another.

I've always hated that plot. But now it's obsolete, and I want to say "thank you" to the people who made that happen, and not just because they've put an end to a particularly bad genre of cinema.

This year my daughter wanted a Laura Ashley dollhouse that turned out to be discontinued. We tried a couple of stores, got the bad news, and went home. I looked on Amazon and got the dreaded message: "This item is not stocked or has been discontinued."

But then I went to eBay, and bought one, brand new in the box, for less than the original retail price. Within a few minutes the quest was over, and it was Miller Time. Happily, there's not much of a movie in that.

I've actually done most of my Christmas shopping online this year, as has my wife. No crowds, no parking problems, no long lines, and often better prices and better selections than in the stores anyway. And I haven't been alone, as online shopping is reportedly booming this holiday season, with December 14 expected to be the biggest online shopping day of the year. Instead of packing the stores and parking lots, burning gasoline, standing in line -- and spreading the particularly unpleasant flu-like cold that's going around at the moment -- millions of Americans will be pointing and clicking their way to holiday cheer.

You'd think that this would make everyone happy, and mostly it does, but I suspect that any minute now the usual complainers will start complaining. My prediction is that the same people who for years have condemned the Christmas shopping season as an orgy of consumerism, and the crowds of shoppers as mindless consumer cattle, will now start criticizing online Christmas shopping, too: Old-fashioned shopping, with its crowds and its standing in line, we'll be told, brought us together. In retrospect, it was a communitarian experience, while online shopping is sterile, alienating, and anti-human -- Stand in line, push and shove, or lose your humanity!

As someone who worked in retail for many years, I'm pretty sure that the Christmas shopping experience doesn't actually do very much to make us love our fellow human beings -- and that's certainly not the message of those Hollywood shopping-Dad movies, which inevitably feature the Dad getting his instep stomped by an angry lady shopper, or perhaps (for Hollywood's favorite moment of guaranteed hilarity) kneed in the groin. I'd rather visit Amazon or eBay, thank you very much.

Interestingly enough, though, as online sales increase that may change. I strongly doubt that online sales will beat out brick-and-mortar operations any time soon, and as I've noted here before, I think that the market for pleasant real-world shopping experiences is growing, not shrinking. And I doubt that any of the folks at DARPA who worked on TCP/IP had any expectation that they would make a difference, but with online shopping picking up some of the slack, and in the process relieving the crowds, congestion, and frustration associated with traditional retail Christmases, old-fashioned Christmas shopping might actually become pleasant again, in a way it hasn't been in decades -- all thanks to the Internet.

Now there's a Christmas miracle. Brought to you not by elves, but by the people responsible for most of the miracles in our lives: Engineers!


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The Engineers Who Saved Christmas
Hooray for us engineers.

We design the toys, electronics, cars and trucks, planes and engines, roads and virtually anything else you can think of. We figure out how to cut out the waste in making said products so they get cheaper and better every year. We make it so your trip home is safe and reliable.

We will just keep working on a transporter and a better mousetrap.....quietly.

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