Ten years ago, I experienced the internet only through paper. It was reverently capitalized back then, like the Electric or the Motor-Car, and for those who visit but don’t yet live there, it still is.
I was working at Hodges Figgis bookshop in Dublin while my future ex-husband finished his thesis on delivering video through noisy channels. I’d had little chance to use computers, and was hazy about his post-graduate research. When I found the first issue of _Wired_, it didn’t occur to me it might have any connection to his work. _Wired_ burbled with the promise of this World Wide Web, and I pored over it with the fizz of discovery, even though the typography was maddening. More than once I had to trace with my finger some distressed fuschia font as it wobbled from a lime-green background to the purple overleaf. I felt like a dyslexic with a treasure map.
The visions of the internet were easier to grasp than the plumbing. I took to borrowing books from work, surreptitiously de-magnetizing their theft protection strips. One Dorling Kindersley pictorial guide explained computer algorithms with a series of ever more detailed instructions on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, as if anyone outside North America would eat such a thing. I read these how-to books and dreamed of a job in Multimedia at Dorling Kindersley. I was hazy on Multimedia too, but the world of CD-ROMS seemed shiny with promise. We still played music on cassette.
Instead, I got a job as a graduate trainee in Technology and Operations at an American investment bank in London. Entry-level jobs were still rare for BAs, and this one was considered a prize, although it was based in an East End tower block with a cast of lumpy Essex blondes who might have inspired The Office. I was baby-faced in the prim suits, tights, and pumps that were just about to be Casual Fridayed for good.
My first assignment was to confirm foreign exchange trades with counterparts in other banks. There were no commas in the huge numbers on my mainframe terminal, and as I launched into each phone call I struggled to work out whether this trade was in billions or zillions. The screen was covered in biro marks where I had desperately marked off digits into sets of threes.
Numbers, phones, Essex girls–I detested it. By character, I was burdened with a need for meaning, and the armpit of the money markets turned out to be a bad place to look for it. The only consolation was my manager, a former borstal boy who’d had the LOVE and HATE removed from his knuckles, leaving faint bluish marks. He was ferociously bright, with a respect for “graduates” that we don’t deserve, and his hard-boiled pep talks kept me going. Otherwise, I stared out the window over unlovely Stratford and dreaded having to come back the next day.
I worked New York hours in the East End. At Moorgate, Jason sold Japanese warrants on the Tokyo shift for a secretive hedge fund that billed itself as a “technology-driven investment bank.” We didn’t see much of each other. His Americans let the staff wear jeans and they gave him a home computer and an ISDN connection, which we rarely switched on.
One weekend he booted up the computer to show me something. His company had been founded by a Columbia computer science professor, who sometimes funded technology-related offshoots. One of his protegés had proposed a service that would provide free dial-up email, and another had wanted to sell books on the internet. He decided that selling books was a bad idea–unwieldy, old-world, not disruptive–and he chose to back dial-up email. So Jeff Bezos left the firm and headed west to Seattle, where the book warehouses were, bringing a New York colleague or two as ballast.
Bezos’s new website was in beta, whatever that was, when we looked at on the dusty little screen in London. It’s the first live website I clearly remember, though surely I’d seen some before. “Amazon.com– Earth’s biggest bookstore.” They had nine employees, and were still hiring. They were looking for editors who would write blurbs in Seattle. We recognized the tone of the job description from Jason’s company of elitist nerds: brains and promise required; flip-flops optional.
“I want that job,” I said, buoyed by the revelation that there existed jobs I’d gladly do, and sinking because they were in some rainy corner of America, and probably paid in remaindered books.
Amazon.com didn’t ship to London in those first months, but still I liked to click around it, tentatively. It was no odder than reading _Wired_ a year before I saw the internet, or than knowing exactly what was on the racks at Top Shop and Miss Selfridge without ever expecting to see them. In pre-Dell Ireland, imported magazines and comics were a window to something bigger, and I always had my nose pressed to the glass. I was wildly interested in the lives contained in their pages, from _Twinkle_ to _Esquire_. It didn’t matter whether they were housewives’ problem pages, footballing comic strips, gossip about BBC celebrities I’d never seen, or tales of flap-breasted pygmies: cheap paper fed all my anthropological instincts. I knew no one else who read them–though they must have, or it wouldn’t have been selling in Newsland. Sometimes I felt isolated, holding all these gobs of information that couldn’t be exchanged.”Allow 28 days for delivery,” the mail order ads said, “Eire and the Channel Islands not included.”
Jeff Bezos changed that. Today I could sit in my home town, or in a Canadian log cabin, and order up the same world of books and music I’d get in Manhattan, and join a conversation with other readers, professional reviewers, authors, partisans, and cranks. Amazon has given books a life that extends beyond their few hopeful weeks on the front tables at the bookstore, and it has helped lonely novels, movies, and albums band together in a happy chain of recommendations. I know a few Amazon statisticians, and wish I could see the stories they saw in raw data.
Not long after Bezos launched Amazon, I ended up in New York working for the dial-up email company that got funded in his place, and slowly learned why he was smart to bail from the mothership. My apartment filled up with Amazon coffee mugs and fridge magnets, and our public radio station proclaimed their sponsorship, though I doubt they had more red ink on their books than Jeff did. Out of loyalty and greed, I bought vacuum cleaners, birthday presents, laptops, cooking pots, CDs, shoes, and stacks of books, and when the money dried up, I just put stuff on my Wish List. That turned out to be nearly as satisfying.
From Manhattan it was easy romanticize the independent booksellers who suffered from Amazon’s success. The small towners among us knew that most weren’t very good. And the hungry readers knew that there are many ways to bring books home. Searching for _C++ for Dummies_ is easier in a web database than in the tiny shop where you flick through Jonathan Lethem’s latest in an armchair before buying it. And though we like the stoop sales, and bookstores of all shapes and size, we’re also glad for the out-of-print treasure that Amazon brokers up from a South Carolina used book dealer.
Tonight I’m reading another Amazon used-book find; an essay by my writing hero, Jonathan Raban, about hopeful immigrants who staked claims on the Montana frontier in the Sears-Roebuck era. In it, he thanks a future ex-wife, who at the time was an editor at Amazon.com–the job that made me hungry to come west ten years ago. It’s a world wide web, indeed. Happy ten, and thank you, to all the Amazonians. You made life better, at least in my book.