My Obsession - William Gibson

I thought I was immune to the Net.
Then I got bitten by eBay.

Wired 7.01 - January 1999

 

 

When I was a young man, traversing the '70s in whatever post-hippie, pre-slacker mode I could manage, I made a substantial part of my living, such as it was, in a myriad of minuscule supply-and-demand gaps that have now largely closed. I was what antique dealers call a "picker," a semi-savvy haunter of Salvation Army thrift shops, from which I would extract objects of obscure desire that I knew were up-marketable to specialist dealers, who sold in turn to collectors. To this day I am often unable to resist a professionally quick, carefully dispassionate scan over the contents of any thrift shop, though I almost never buy anything there. Mainly because the cut-rate treasures, the "scores" of legend, are long gone. The market has been rationalized. We have become a nation, a world, of pickers.

There are several reasons for this. One has to do with boomer demographics and the cult of nostalgia. There are now more fiftysomethings than there are primo childhood artifacts of a similar vintage. Most of our toys, unlike the wood and pot-metal of yore, were extrusion-molded ephemera, fragile styrene simulacra, highly unlikely to survive the random insults of time. A great deal of the boomer's remembered world has been melted down, or crushed into unreadable fragments in forgotten strata of landfill. What remains, particularly if it's "mint in box," becomes increasingly rarefied.

Another reason, and this one is more mysterious, has to do with an ongoing democratization of connoisseurship, in which curatorial privilege is available at every level of society. Whether one collects Warhol prints or Beanie Babies becomes, well, a matter of taste.

The idea of the Collectible is everywhere today, and sometimes strikes me as some desperate instinctive reconfiguring of the postindustrial flow, some basic mammalian response to the bewildering flood of sheer stuff we produce.

But the main driving force in the tidying of the world's attic, the drying up of random, "innocent" sources of rarities, is information technology. We are mapping literally everything, from the human genome to Jaeger two-register chronographs, and our search engines grind increasingly fine.

"Surely you haven't been bitten by the eBay bug," said my publishing friend Patrick. We were in the lobby of a particularly bland hotel somewhere within the confines of a New England technology park, and I was in fact feeling twinges of withdrawal.

eBay, which bills itself as Your Personal Trading Community TM, is a site that hosts well over 800,000 online auctions per day, in 1,086 categories. eBay gets around 140 million hits per week, and, for the previous few months, a certain number of those hits had been from me.

And, in the process of adding to eBay's gargantuan hit-pile, several days before, I had gotten myself in trouble. In Uruguay.

How this happened: I'm home in Vancouver, midway through that first cup of morning coffee, in front of the computer, ready to work straight from the dream-state.

I am deep into eBay, half-awake, staring at a scan of this huge-ass Zenith diver's watch. And I am, mind you, a practicing ectomorph. I have wrists like pipestems. I am not going to get too much wear out of a watch that's actually wider than my wrist.

But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I know, having already become of habitué of eBay's Clocks, Timepieces: Wrist Watches, that the movement in this particular Zenith is the very one Rolex installs in the big-ticket Daytona. Making this both a precision timepiece and possibly an undervalued one - the identical thing having sold on eBay, the week before, albeit in better cosmetic condition, for around two grand.

"I didn't even know you had Web access," Patrick said. "You mean you've overcome your infamous resistance to using the Net, but only in order to service an eBay addiction?"

Well, yes. Sort of. Not exactly.

eBay is simply the only thing I've found on the Web that keeps me coming back. It is, for me anyway, the first "real" virtual place.

In Patrick's hotel room, we used his laptop to get onto eBay, where I discovered that, yes, I was still high bidder for the damned Zenith: $500 American. This bid, you see, was the result of Fiddling Around. I'd sat there in my office, not quite awake yet, and had poked around with modest but increasingly higher bids, assuming that the seller's hidden "reserve," the lowest bid he'd accept, would be quite high. But no, at $500 I hit it, and suddenly I was listed there as high bidder. This had happened before, and I had always been outbid later. So I didn't worry.

But I didn't really want to have to buy this very large watch. Which was in Uruguay. And now I was still high bidder, and the auction would be run off before I got back to Vancouver. I thought about having to resell the Zenith.

When I did get back, though, I discovered, to mixed emotions, that I'd been "sniped." Someone, or rather their automated bidding software, had swooped in, in the last few seconds, and scooped the Zenith for only the least allowable increment over my bid.

How did I get into this, anyway?

I went happily along for years, smugly avoiding anything that involved a modem. Email address? Sorry. Don't have one.

And then I got a Web site. Had one foisted upon me, actually, and quite brilliantly, by Christopher Halcrow, who created William Gibson's Yardshow, an "official" homepage. So I kept having to go into my kids' bedrooms and beg for Web access to look at it, which bugged them.

Then Chris, who knows a bargain when he sees one, happened to buy this Performa 5200CD from someone who was leaving town. He passed the Performa on to me for what he'd paid for it, and suddenly I had this video-ready machine I could look at my site on, and the video-ready part brought cable into the office, so I got a cable modem, because it was faster, and I already had a hole drilled in the wall, and then I discovered that, damn, I had an email address. It was part of the deal. So email, over the course of about 15 minutes, replaced the faxes I'd been using to keep in touch with certain people.

In the way of things, very shortly, I no longer had a Web site, Chris having found it necessary to get a life. But there was the rest of the Web, waiting to be explored. And I did, and promptly got bored. It was fun, at first, but then gradually I found that there wasn't really anywhere in particular I wanted to go. I went a lot of places, but I seldom went back.

Then I found eBay. And I wanted to go back. Because eBay is, basically, just a whole bunch of stuff. Stuff you can look at and wonder if you want - or let yourself want and then bid on.

Mechanical watches are so brilliantly unnecessary.

Any Swatch or Casio keeps better time, and high-end contemporary Swiss watches are priced like small cars. But mechanical watches partake of what my friend John Clute calls the Tamagotchi Gesture. They're pointless in a peculiarly needful way; they're comforting precisely because they require tending.

And vintage mechanical watches are among the very finest fossils of the pre-digital age. Each one is a miniature world unto itself, a tiny functioning mechanism, a congeries of minute and mysterious moving parts. Moving parts! And consequently these watches are, in a sense, alive. They have heartbeats. They seem to respond, Tamagotchi-like, to "love," in the form, usually, of the expensive ministrations of specialist technicians. Like ancient steam-tractors or Vincent motorcycles, they can be painstakingly restored from virtually any stage of ruin.

And, as with the rest of the contents of the world's attic, most of the really good ones are already in someone's collection.

But the best of what's still available, below the spookily expensive level of a Sotheby's watch auction, can still be had for a few thousand dollars at most. At the time of this writing, the most desirable vintage Rolex on one New York dealer's Web site, a stainless steel "bubble back" automatic, is priced at $3,800, a fraction of the cost of many contemporary watches by the same maker. (And it's so much cooler, possesses so much more virtu, than one of those gold-and-diamond Pimpomatic numbers!)

My father bought a stainless steel Rolex Oyster with a stainless band at a duty-free in Bermuda in the early '50s.

After his death, not very long after, my mother put it away in a bank vault, from whence I wheedled it when I was 18 or so. I had a Rolex dealer in Tucson replace its white dial with a black one, so that it would be more like the one James Bond wore in Fleming's novels. I loved it, and, one very sad night a few years later, I sold it for very little to a classmate of mine, in order to pay for a hotel room in which to enjoy, if that's the word, a final bitter tryst with my high school sweetheart. It was one of those dumb-ass, basically self-destructive gestures, and I actually don't regret it. I needed that hotel room. But I've always missed that watch, that Rolex Oyster Precision, and have always had it in the back of my mind to replace it one day with another of similar vintage. I had never done anything about it, though, and made do quite happily with quartz. My last quartz watch was a French faux-military job I bought at the airport in Cannes, on my way home from the film festival. Cost about a hundred dollars. Perfectly adequate for everything - everything except the Tamagotchi Gesture.

Last year, for some reason, I was struck by an ad, one that ran repeatedly in the British men's fashion magazines, for the Oris "Big Crown Commander." It was just a very good-looking watch, I thought, and it was Swiss, and mechanical, and not terribly expensive as such things go. Driven in part by my then brand-new Web access, I used a search engine to determine that Oris had no Canadian distributor. This made the watch seem even cooler, so I went on, via the Web, to locate a Seattle retailer who carried what a sarcastic friend had taken to calling the Big Dick Commando. (The crown, the bit you twist to set it, see, is rather more than usually prominent, so that you can do it without removing your whacking great RAF pilot's gloves.)

And I was and am quite happy with it.

Except that, though I didn't know it at the time, my search for the Big Crown Commander had inadvertently exposed me to the eBay bug.

I got a little compulsive, eventually.

I found myself coming down to my basement office every morning and going straight to that one particular bookmark. New auctions are posted daily on eBay, so there was always something new to look at.

The first watch I bought was a Croton "Aquamedico," a rarish - or obscure, depending on how you look at it - Swiss manual-wind from the late '40s or early '50s, black dial with a white medical chapter ring. (Getting the terminology down was a big part of the kick, for me; a medical chapter ring is an outer, 60-second set of graduations that facilitate taking a patient's pulse.) It had been listed by a seller who didn't seem to be particularly into watches; the language of the listing was casual, non-specialist, and not much mention was made of the watch's condition. Email to the seller elicited the opinion that the watch looked as though "it hadn't been worn very often," which I liked. The scan was intriguingly low-res, but I really liked the design of the numerals. And I really liked its name, "Aquamedico," which for some reason evoked for me the back pages, circa 1956, of Field & Stream and True.

Tentatively (but compulsively) I placed a low bid and waited to see if the Aquamedico attracted much attention from the eBay watch buffs. It didn't.

In the meantime, I determined that Croton was a long-established Swiss maker whose watches had been a lot more prominent in the United States in the '40s and '50s. Full-page ads in wartime Fortune.

I decided to go for it. To try and buy this thing. To import a unique object, physically, out of cyberspace. Well, out of Pennsylvania, actually, but I did experience this peculiar yearning to turn the not-so-clear scan on my screen into a physical object on my desk. And for all I knew, it might be the only Croton Aquamedico left, anywhere. (And in fact I've only ever seen one other Aquamedico since on eBay, and it was gold-filled with a white dial, neither of which I liked as much.)

On the night of the auction, after having carefully considered bidding strategy (and this with no prior experience of bidding in any kind of auction), I placed a bid for considerably less than the $200 limit I'd set for myself.

That put me in high-bidder position. And then I sat there.

What if, it occurred to me, someone noticed my Croton in the auction's last few minutes and decided to grab it? eBay's system of proxy bidding encourages buyers to offer the most they're willing to pay for an item - their "maximum" bid. My maximum bid was $140. But on eBay you don't necessarily end up having to pay your maximum bid. In an auction house, if you raised your hand to bid $200 on a watch, you'd be on the hook for that amount. But on eBay, each auction has a set "bid increment" - with some as little as 5 cents. With a $2 set bid increment, a rival could bid $200 on my watch, beat me out, and end up having to pay only $142, or $2 over my maximum.

I started to get nervous. (And this, mind you, was before I even knew about sniping-software and autobid bots.) What if someone else got this watch, this watch I'd never seen but which I now, somehow, was emotionally invested in winning? I began to have some sense of the power of the psychology of auctions, something I hadn't really experienced before.

I'm not a gambler. I've never put money on a horse, bought a lottery ticket, or bet on a hand of cards. Just doesn't do it for me. I've engaged in compulsive risk-taking behavior, certainly, but not the kind involving games of chance. But here, I recognized, I was starting to experience a buzz that I suspected was very much like a gambling buzz.

And what if, I asked myself, the Croton was really not all that desirable an object, a lemon, something a serious watch-nerd would find laughable?

What if the seller simply cashed my money order and did a runner? But I'd already checked his profile in the Feedback Forum, and there were lots of people on record there as saying he was honest, prompt, goods as described, and pleasant to deal with. (All of which turned out to be true.)

Meanwhile, with less than an hour to go before the auction closed, I was robotically punching the Netscape Reload button like a bandit-cranking Vegas granny, in case somebody outbid me. I knew how long it would take me to counterbid (not long), but I didn't know how quickly I could expect the server to process my bid.

Into the final countdown, nobody else showing up, when one more click on the Reload button produced ... a new high bidder! Galvanized, I scrambled frantically through the bid process, and hit Bid. Real heart-in-mouth stuff, this. And, I must say, really fun.

Reload. And I was back, reinstated.

The auction closed.

The Aquamedico was mine.

I examined the address of the buyer who'd tried to outbid me at the last minute. An "hk" suggested that he was out of Hong Kong, which I already knew to be a hotbed of serious vintage-watch action. (The day before, I had found a wonderfully bizarre site in Taiwan, a sort of micro wrecker's yard, exclusively devoted to selling parts of Rolex watches: cases, dials, hands, et cetera.) I loved it that this Hong Kong bidder had popped in at the last minute, hoping to scoop what he, with his no doubt very considerable watch-savvy, knew to be an extremely desirable piece. But I had been there, ready, and I had prevailed.

I emailed the seller, sending my physical address and asking for his.

In the morning, I went out to buy a postal money order, the standard medium of exchange on eBay.

When the Aquamedico arrived, however, I was dismayed to find that it was peculiarly small, probably a "boy's" watch. I went back to its page on eBay and noted that, yes, it was indeed described as being a 30-mm watch. But the scan was larger than the watch itself, and I had assumed that 30 mm was standard (36 mm is actually closer to the contemporary men's standard). And while the steel case was very nearly mint, even better than the description, the crystal was in such rough shape that it was impossible to get a clear idea of the condition of the dial and hands. It had arrived from cyberspace, but it didn't really look like the scan. It looked as though it had been sitting in a sock drawer, somewhere in Pennsylvania, for 40-some years. Which it probably had.

But the seller's performance had been excellent, so I added my own note of positive feedback to his profile, and he gave me one in turn.

I took the Aquamedico to Otto Friedl, élite specialist in the care of vintage Swiss Tamagotchis, down in the lower lobby of the Hotel Vancouver, and asked to have it cleaned, lubricated, and the crystal replaced. When I went back for it, I discovered that it was a beautiful object indeed, the black dial immaculate, virtu intact.

But it wasn't the watch.

I told myself that there wasn't any the watch, and that I had simply found my own way, after avoiding it for years, of compulsively wasting time on the Net.

But I kept doing it. Opening that same bookmark and clicking down through pages and pages of watches. Learning to read a restricted code. And there was everything there, really: Swatches (which are collected like Barbies), the same battered Gruens you would see gathering dust in a Kansas City pawnshop, every sort and vintage of Rolex, wartime Omegas with the British broad arrow stamped into the caseback, German Sinn chronographs that you aren't really supposed to be able to buy here, Spiro Agnew campaign watches ...

And bidding. I'd bid a few times per week and was usually content to let myself be outbid. But I did buy another watch, from London, an oddly named Tweka with a two-tone copper dial. It went for around $150 and had been listed as "NOS," which means new old stock, something that supposedly has sat in the back of a jeweler's drawer since 1952. Very nice, after a trip to Otto, but still not the watch ...

eBay is a cross between a swap meet in cyberspace and a country auction with computer-driven proxy bidding. The auctioneer is one of eBay's servers.

Buyers don't pay anything to eBay; they just pay sellers for the items they buy. Sellers, however, pay a fee on each item they list, and another fee if it sells. You can set this up so that your eBay seller's account comes off your credit card. I doubt if anyone's seller account amounts to much in a given month, but eBay moves a lot of items.

There's a sense of taking part in an evolving system, here. I suspect that eBay is evolving in much the way the Net did.

I started visiting eBay just as user IDs were coming in. You can opt to do business on eBay under a handle. I think that this was introduced in order to foil spam-miners, who were sending bots into eBay to scoop up email addresses. And I actually did get spam, my very first, after my initial foray into eBay. But then I got a user ID and the spam stopped.

Looking over the Announcement Board recently, I saw that eBay now requires credit card information before allowing users into such categories as firearms and X-rated adult material: an age-checking strategy.

One thing I can imagine changing on eBay is the current requirement that sellers who want to display scans of their items find an off-site page on which to host their HTML. eBay links to tutorials on how to do this, but it's just enough of a learning curve to discourage some people. Myself included. If it were possible to send a scan directly to eBay, I think selling would take a major step toward becoming a ubiquitous activity.

I find clutter, in my personal environment, oppressive. But crazed environments of dead tech and poignant rubbish turn up in my fiction on a regular basis, where they are usually presented as being at once comforting, evocative, and somehow magical. The future as flea market. I really do tend to see the future that way, though not exclusively.

My first impulse, when presented with any spanking-new piece of computer hardware, is to imagine how it will look in 10 years' time, gathering dust under a card table in a thrift shop. And it probably will.

The pleasure afforded by browsing eBay is the pleasure afforded by any flea market or garage sale. Something ruminative, but with an underlying acuity, as though some old hunter-gatherer module were activated. It's a lot like beachcombing.

Where eBay departs the traditional pleasure of a flea market, though, is in its sheer scale and its searchability. If you can think of a thing, you can search it on eBay. And, very probably, you can find it.

If randomness is what you're after, though, there are ways to surf eBay, rather than search it. Modes of sheer drift. Every item offers you a chance to peruse Seller's Other Auctions, which can take you off into categories of merchandise you wouldn't have thought of. A search for Hopi silver, for instance, brought up other kinds of Native American artifacts, much older ones, so that a series of clicks through stone adzes and Clovis points led to an obscure monograph on mound-excavation in Florida in the 1930s.

But it was the watches that kept me coming back.

And I started to get sniped.

The best way to kick this habit, I decided, was to binge on serious watches. Keepers.

I'd find a watch I wanted, work my way up to high-bidder position, check my position regularly (eBay regularly informs you of your bidding status, and outbid notices arrive promptly, but it's still fun to check), and find, as the auction ran off, that I'd been zapped, in the last five minutes of bidding, by someone offering just one increment more than I had bid. I began to smell a rat.

The nature of the rat became apparent when I started checking out "Dutch" (multiple buyer) auctions of eBay-specific software, and discovered that one could buy plug-ins that automated the bidding process.

This bothered me. I thought about it. It bothered me more.

The idea of this software ran entirely counter to the peculiar psychology of bidding at auction. The software-driven sniper isn't really bidding; he's shopping. Skimming an existing situation. The sniper (or his software package) is able to look at the final minutes of any auction as a done deal, then decide whether or not to purchase that item at the fixed price, plus one bid increment. Which pissed me off, and took some of the fun away.

A friend's hacker boyfriend, in Chicago, offered to write me a piece of software that would outsnipe anything on the market. Tempting, but not very. Instead, I sent eBay a message to the effect that allowing autobid software detracted from the eBay experience. That it spoiled the chemistry of the thing, which in my view was a large part of what they offered as a venue. I also suspected, though I couldn't think of a convincing way to put it, that sufficient proliferation of sniping software could eventually, theoretically, bring the whole community to a halt.

I got no reply, and I hadn't expected to, but the problem seems in the meantime to have been resolved. Entirely to my satisfaction, and in a way that illustrates exactly how things have a way of finding their own uses for the street.

Text of a message sent to all vendors of third-party bidding software at eBay, 8/13/98:

eBay bid system change: Yesterday, through the help of an eBay user, we
detected and disarmed a 'bid bot' which had placed bids on hundreds of
items. A bid bot is a program which bids on many items or the same item
over and over again. Our SafeHarbour team is tracking down the source of
the bot, and will be working with our lawyers and the authorities to take
appropriate action. In an effort to prevent this type of system attack in
the future, eBay plans to make an internal change to the bidding process.
Most of you will not notice this change. It will NOT affect the interface
you use at all. All bidding processes will remain the same as they were
before. Unfortunately, the change may disable most, if not all 'automated
bidding programs' (aka sniping programs). We apologize for this, but it's
important that we make eBay safe from robots of this kind.

I'd love to know what that bot was bidding on. Beanie Babies, probably. (A follow-up message partially reversed course: eBay would not outlaw bid bots, but would require that they conform to sign-on procedures.)

With a level playing field restored, I decided to kick this eBay watch-buying habit in the head.

Addictive personality that I am, I decided that the best way to do that was to binge: to do a whole bunch of it at one time and get it out of my system. To that end, I decided to buy a couple of fairly serious watches. Keepers.

I bid on, and won, a late-'40s Jaeger two-register chronograph in Hong Kong. The idea of sending a check off to Causeway Bay for more than a thousand dollars to someone I'd never heard of, let alone met, seemed to be stretching it a little. But Eric So, a B Tech (Mech) at the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department and an avid watch fancier, was so evidently honest, so helpful, and responded to email so readily, that I soon had no reservations whatever. Once the check had cleared, the Jaeger arrived with blinding speed and was even nicer than described.

And I did have one authentic auction-frisson over the Jaeger when, very near the end of the auction, someone bidding "by hand" topped me. This gentleman, when I checked his profile, appeared to be a European collector of some seriousness. After I bid again, I waited nervously, but he never came back.

My other binge watch was a Vulcain Cricket, an alarm-watch introduced in the late '40s, which sounds like a very large, very mechanical cricket. I wanted one of these because the older ones look terrific, and because "Vulcain Cricket" is one of the finest pieces of found poetry I've ever stumbled across.

I found the best one I'd ever seen, offered by Vince and Laura, of Good Timing, who, by virtue of tagging all their items "(GOOD TIMING)," have built themselves the equivalent of a stall in cyberspace. Most sellers' goods on eBay are spread, as it were, on the same huge blanket, but Vince and Laura's tag allows them an edge in rep-building.

I think it worked, the binge cure. Possibly because getting serious about choosing serious watches made the shuffling of pages a chore rather than a pleasure. Whereas before I'd been able to veg out, in the style of watching some version of the Shopping Channel that actually interested me, I now felt as though I were buying real estate. Investing. Collecting.

I'd always hoped that I wouldn't turn into the sort of person who collected anything.

I no longer open to watches on eBay first thing in the morning. Days go by without my contributing so much as a single hit.

Or maybe I just have enough wristwatches.

I wonder, though, at the extent to which eBay facilitated my passage through this particular consumer obsession. Into it and out the other side in a little under a year. How long would it have taken me to get up to speed on vintage watches without eBay? Would I have started attending watch shows? Would I have had to travel? Would it have taken years? Would I have gotten into it at all?

Probably not.

In Istanbul, one chill misty morning in 1970, I stood in Kapali Carsi, the grand bazaar, under a Sony sign bristling with alien futurity, and stared deep into a cube of plate glass filled with tiny, ancient, fascinating things.

Hanging in that ancient venue, a place whose on-site café, I was told, had been open, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, literally for centuries, the Sony sign - very large, very proto-Blade Runner, illuminated in some way I hadn't seen before - made a deep impression. I'd been living on a Greek island, an archaeological protectorate where cars were prohibited, vacationing in the past.

The glass cube was one man's shop. He was a dealer in curios, and from within it he would reluctantly fetch, like the human equivalent of those robotic cranes in amusement arcades, objects I indicated that I wished to examine. He used a long pair of spring-loaded faux-ivory chopsticks, antiques themselves, their warped tips lent traction by wrappings of rubber bands.

And with these he plucked up, and I purchased, a single stone bead of great beauty, the color of apricot, with bright mineral blood at its core, to make a necklace for the girl I'd later marry, and an excessively mechanical Swiss cigarette lighter, circa 1911 or so, broken, its hallmarked silver case crudely soldered with strange, Eastern, aftermarket sigils.

And in that moment, I think, were all the elements of a real futurity: all the elements of the world toward which we were heading - an emerging technology, a map that was about to evert, to swallow the territory it represented. The technology that sign foreshadowed would become the venue, the city itself. And the bazaar within it.

But I'm glad we still have a place for things to change hands. Even here, in this territory the map became.

© 1993-2000 The Condé Nast Publications Inc. All rights reserved.
© 1994-2000 Wired Digital, Inc. All rights reserved.

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