Who doesn’t love buying online? It offers a bigger selection for less money, ordered from the privacy of your home and delivered there too. But if e-commerce is great for consumers, it is more problematic for citizens. The sales tax that people pay in physical stores helps pay for the upkeep of their communities. The physical stores also provide employment; these workers can afford in turn to buy things and thus keep the economy afloat. Few such benefits flow from e-commerce.
This is from a lovely tribute to a recently-closed bookstore in Berkeley, and I want to endorse much that the author says about the value of such a place to a community. But the claims I’ve quoted here, which open the essay, are pretty palpably wrong, aren’t they?
If I buy a physical object online, it’s not teleported to my house. It’s stored somewhere, probably in a warehouse, and people do things to get the book to my house. E-commerce provides jobs for warehouse clerks, UPS drivers, truck mechanics, and the various folks who build and support the electronic infrastructure. It’s true that few of those jobs will be in my neighborhood — and that does indeed make a significant difference — but it’s untrue that the jobs don’t exist at all.
Now, it’s interesting to think about how the economics change when we consider commodities that come in digital form: books, movies, music, etc. There are still jobs being created: people have to make and move and service and support the laptops, e-readers, tablets, and the like; they have to write the code that creates and transmits the files; they have to build and maintain the networks over which the information passes. But perhaps these jobs are getting farther from my neighborhood; I’m not sure.
Probably someone has done this, but if not they should: trace out every step in the making and shipping and using of a paper codex, and then every step in the making and shipping and using of an e-book, so that we can see what people (what jobs) are involved in getting these things to the consumer.