Techwit: Softwear planning and the mall

Posted: Sunday, November 24, 2002

Do you know that look of frenzied panic the average teenager gets when she's one step out of fashion and needs to go to the mall NOW to do some serious power-shopping before she's reported to her peer group for being hideously uncool?

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Well, long, long ago, when the Internet really took off (circa 1992), a teacher approached me with that same look in his eyes. Grabbing me by my lapel and pulling me so close I could read the laundry tag on his shirt, he said, "Jason, help me! I've got to get on the Internet!" After coaxing him through some breathing exercises to calm him down I asked him why. With even greater panic in his eyes he screeched, "I have no idea!"

That's how most of us came to the Internet party - terrified, confused and not sure why we were there. It was a lot like being born. Or going to a family reunion: Everyone expected you to show up even though you never received a formal invitation, certainly had no hand in planning any of it and no matter how fast you sprinted to get there, someone always nagged you for being late.

The problem with sprinting to the Internet party is that it keeps receding into the near future as gazillions of buckets of new information hit the World Wide Web every day. Change is coming at us so fast that we live life, as McLuhan pointed out, looking in the rearview mirror to discover where we've just been rather than looking down the road to see where we'd like to be. Just another good reason not to drink and drive, especially on the Information Highway.

Despite the fact that technology lasts about as long as a clean shirt, anyone responsible for buying it is supposed to engage in something called "technology planning," an oxymoron if I ever heard one. How do you plan for stuff that's obsolete on arrival? The philosophy of the Digital Age is, "Hurry up, you're late. You'll have plenty of time to worry about where you're going when you get there." As a technology planner in this day of fast forward living you have two primary concerns: 1) do you buy today's model this morning, or wait until this afternoon so you can get it at half-price? and, 2) where do you throw it out when it gets here?

Which brings me full circle to the fashion-conscious power-shopping teenager. It's really not much easier for her. She can't plan to be cool. After all, who knows what bandwagon Madison Avenue will roll through her psyche next? Like computer models, clothes styles change so fast that all she can do is react. And, like the technology planner, she too can find what she needs online. "Softwear" shopping I call it. In fact, online she can - to use another thoroughly modern word - "prosume" (produce + consume = prosume). That is, she can order clothes to her own unique specifications, much the way computer shoppers custom design computer systems online that get delivered to their door.

So, if the online world allows her to shop anywhere, compare prices instantly, find products that aren't stocked in local stores, and get just the length, color, style and shock value she wants, then why does she need to go to the mall at all? Simple: Because that's where her friends are. After all, how else would she know what they're wearing?

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at © 2002 Jason Ohler.

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