Doesn't it seem a bit odd that Jeff Bezos has been named Person of the Year? Wasn't that title given to Mahatma Gandhi in 1930? To Dwight Eisenhower in 1944? To Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963? Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989?
Now Time magazine has just chosen the founder of Amazon.com, a guy whose contribution to world peace is a better way to shop. The most lauded entrepreneur of 1999 is running a company that could lose $350 million this year alone.
Not that I'm complaining. Nearly everyone knows that dot.coms were the big wreath on the holiday gift mantel this Christmas and e-commerce was the star on the tree of the economy.
I am one of the millions who chose the click over the brick. My mall-free Xmas was conducted at computer screens and craft shows. (Click and clay?) The stack of boxes in the corner of my bedroom, the up-close-and-personal relationship with the UPS man, the shop sites bookmarked on my computer, were all testimony to the fingers that did the walking, the mouse that did the driving.
Sure, I had a few glitches. One day, I conducted a personal contest -- John Henry vs. the steam drill -- between a particularly recalcitrant Lands' End site on the Web and very pleasant Lands' End man on the phone. John Henry won one.
But it occurs to me that the secret appeal of e-shopping is not just efficiency. Web shopping has turned out to be the only simple encounter of the technological kind many of us have ever experienced.
The e-folk of e-commerce have created shopping sites based on a premise that's unique in the technological world: if you build it simply enough, they will come. And come back. Consumers finally have software that makes it easy. At the risk of sounding like Sally Fields at the infamous Oscar awards, we can look at the screen and say, "You REALLY LIKE me!"
Even the admittedly "technologically challenged" president opened his Compaq laptop onto the antique wooden desk in the Oval Office, went to a Web site and typed in his American Express card number. As an aide boasted of this first-timer, "He did it all by himself!"
Compare this to the average workaday high-tech interaction. We are dealing increasingly with computers and computerized gadgets that don't give a damn. We have functions that we can't make function, VCRs and digital cameras and even clocks that are smarter than we are -- and don't mind letting us know it.
Designer Alan Cooper says that the "main motivation of all computer users is to not feel stupid." He describes the universal experience of walking down the hall at work hearing an outburst of "computer Tourette's."
Cooper, a lonely high-tech voice yelling into the Silicon Valley, insists that we aren't stupid: "Computers are hard." Too hard. And they are hard, because, as the title of his book describes it, "The Inmates are Running the Asylum." The software is badly designed by programmers for programmers. Let the consumer be damned or be driven crazy.
The head of eBay, Pierre Omidyar, says, "My mother always taught me to treat other people the way I want to be treated." Cooper, bless him, says, "Software should be polite." But my computer chastises me regularly by announcing, "You have performed an illegal command" and threatening to take away my first-born child if I do it again.
So most users learn only what they really need to know and high-tech companies actually brag about how many calls are made to their help lines. Computer literacy means that we have to learn the language of programmers; they don't have to learn how to talk to us.
The language of high-tech waste and frustration? This very morning, a printer of my intimate acquaintance announced, "Load interrupted." Anyone with any communication skill would have politely explained: "You're out of paper."
Person of the year Jeff Bezos talks about creating a "nirvana" state of consumer shopping. Well, nirvana isn't around the corner, but e-shoppers have already learned that computers don't have to be so hard. The "inmates" can make it easy.
All we have to do now is make our point. And click.