What's a commodity? Jared and I were discussing this. I've figured it out. This post might be full of highfalutin hand-waving and making up words that don't exist. Just pretend I'm a literature critic, and we'll all be cool.
Idea #1: things are not commodities. Is a paperback copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma (check it out, product placement) a commodity? You could say yes: it's always the same, no matter where you buy it. You could say no: it might have a lot of meaning, there's some art and some science that went into creating it, it's a valuable good. Let's settle this:
Things are not commodities. Requests are. Let's say a request can be commoditious (made-up word #1) or not.
Then a commoditious request is one that a relatively dumb robot could fulfill on a relatively idealized version of Amazon.com.
If my request is "I want a new paperback copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma", that is a commoditious request. A robot could do it in two seconds. If I say "I want to read a good book" or "I want something thought-provoking about the food system", a relatively dumb robot could not do that so well. If I want "a new Roomba," a robot could do that on Amazon.com; that's a commoditious request. If I want "something that cleans my floor the best," that's not commoditious (okay, that's kinda a crappy word*).
*oh zing oh snap no pun intended check it out shut up.
And it's a spectrum: let's say a robot would need a level of intelligence between 1 and 100 to fulfill a request. Then the commoditiousness of a request is 100 minus the intelligence of that robot. (Omnivore's Dilemma: he'd need about 2 units of intelligence to look it up on Amazon.com. That request has a level of commoditiousness of 98.)
If something is stylish or unique, that's less commoditious (a robot could not find you "a nice hat.") Less stylish, more commoditious (a robot could more easily find you "32W/32L basic blue jeans"). If something is hard to find (a Joe Shlabotnik rookie baseball card), it's less commoditious.
Why am I talking about this? Because Jared challenged my (and countless other White People's) love of mom-and-pop small stores. So here's my rationale: stores that fulfill less commoditious requests should be small businesses. Store that fulfill more commoditious requests should not exist. (Amazon.com, or another internet giant, should run them out of business.)
About the less commoditious requests: you want people who care to be behind these things. I want a bookstore owned by someone who likes books and who could maybe recommend me something, or talk about books with me. I want a bike shop owned by someone who knows bikes and who can advise me what kind of bike I should get, not because it maximizes his profit margin, but because I'll be a happier customer. I want to buy food from a farmer or a fishmonger or a baker because they care enough not to put industrial chemicals into their food.
The more commoditious requests? Let the robot shop for them, and let the robot send them to me. I just need a simple pair of scissors. I don't want to pay a bunch of shmoes to stock the scissors on the shelves and ring me up at the cash register and advertise in the Sunday paper. Economy-of-scale it up, send me a pair from the warehouse nearest me.
Other side notes that maybe I'll explore later or maybe not:
- Christmas gifts should be as non-commoditious as possible
- Wal-mart shouldn't exist at all
- People should strive for fewer commoditious wants
- and of course, why don't I apply this to FOOD and see what comes up. Bet it's snobby!