We Hear and eBay


Nobody likes a middleman. I don’t mean a yenta or a middle reliever, but a middleman: somebody who slides in between a buyer and seller out of some supposed necessity, and turns a dime doing it.

Much of e-commerce’s thrillette (and a lot of its legal flux) involves the net’s capacity for cutting out the middleman. Buy a song from the label and cut out Tower; hell, buy it from the artist and cut out the label, too. It’s streamlined, sensible, and oughta be a nickel cheaper. That should make all the difference, and, after all, money talks.

Money actually has only one thing to say, in the sexiest voice ever invented. Money winks and whispers and swears it makes it easier for you to get things. That’s a lie. Money is an intermediary between you and things, an extra step you have to pass through. Money itself is a middleman.

Which brings us to eBay. Most eBaywatchers talk about the auction site as a guilty pleasure (“I know it’s stupid, but I found the darlingest faux-fur car coat for $11!”), a few as a genuine boon (“I made my rent selling my furniture!”); the rest of us look away in blank uninterest. That’s a mistake. We should hate eBay.

The technology and scope that allow eBay to operate ought to do something a little more dramatic than marginally extend everybody’s capacity to buy and sell shit. Am I supposed to feel good about that, ever, even if someone’s aunt just found a lovely French pocket watch she’d always wanted? If eBay’s so damn good at cutting out middlemen, shouldn’t it be able to outmaneuver money’s seduction altogether?

Money was invented, basically, to move value through space and time. It’s a way to exchange your Florida oranges for Belgian chocolate, or your winter wheat for summer squash. People used to barter such things directly, and in some places they still do. But let’s be practical: The world got complicated. You can’t magically blink over to Brussels or to next summer, so you agree to let money slide between you and and your corresponding trader. Maybe you take the money from your wheat and buy auto repairs. Maybe the Belgian buys himself a book of poems. The world moves along.

Meanwhile money, like every other middleman in history, charges you a little fee. It charges you to buy checks and use ATMs. It charges you for letting time pass while prices rise. Change currencies and money charges you. Money takes a cut of your paycheck to salary the paymasters and accountants. It does more insidious things, like hang out in huge mobs of money with names like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, dictating third world social policies. It’s evil, it’s annoying, it makes you carry a wallet. But it’s necessary, right, because you can’t barter anymore. Without money, your oranges rot in their crates.

That’s where eBay should come in. A vast, connected network of Wants and Haves provides the foundation for a barter economy. All you need then is some way to build complicated, dynamic chains: This week Ignatz wants to trade oranges for car repair, but his mechanic Imogene wants a faux-fur pocket watch. So you need a system that can efficiently arrange for Ignatz to trade oranges to the chocolate guy, who sends chocolate off to the poet with a sweet tooth, who delivers a poem to the curio dealer, who just happens to have a faux-fur pocket watch.

That system exists already—the flight-booking software used by travel agents could handle it. As an anarchist friend says, “Big collectives always fail because there are too many meetings. But the Net could essentially become the meeting.” And still we use it for the most dull, incremental steps in the wrong direction—to extend capital’s creeping banalities a centimeter further into our lives. And pretend it’s kicky and liberating. Swell.

As charming as Luddite types are, there’s little evidence that technological advances ever roll backward. So it seems like the good folk rediscovering the joys of kicking up shit in the streets of Seattle and the malls of D.C. might also want to turn their thoughts to the Web, and to imagining how big tech can rethink big issues. In the meantime, the men in the middle keep purring, cozily cradled between you and the fruits of your labors.