The material world moves online

Shoppers reach for television sets as they compete to purchase retail items on Black Friday at a store in Sao Paulo, Brazil, November 24, 2016. REUTERS/Nacho Doce
Any colour as long as it’s black

My son does not do shopping. The sight of a shopping centre is enough to send him into a slough of despond and, to be fair, there’s not much there to keep him occupied.

He has grown out of toy shops, his obsession with Game has gone now that games software has moved online, and he doesn’t do fashion. Like my late father, he doesn’t see the point in having multiples of the same thing. One T-shirt and pair of jeans is enough for any man.

On the face of it, this is a welcome rejection of materialism. But the world has changed – and nowhere more than retail. Away from the high street, there’s a whole new world of consumerism along the superhighway. And that’s were he shops.

On Black Friday, the digital high street comes into its own. Why have a fist-fight in Tesco for a shoddy mass-produced television set, when you can buy one online.

On the web you can spend money without being aware of it. You don’t even have to pull your wallet out of your pocket. One-click shopping liberates cash from your account at the push of a button.

My heir, Mr Convenience, has adapted to this new world with ease. His computer – built from parts delivered by white van man – is powerful enough to take a rocket to the other end of the solar system. Captain Kirk would be envious of the kit.

I am old-fashioned enough to still think Amazon is a river running through rainforests, and to envisage Amazonians as a ruthless band of female warriors.

But times have moved on. It is the source of steady stream of brown paper packages rivering through our letterbox: computer parts; exotic Japanese manga; and stuff that passes these days for entertainment – hi-tech toys and electronics.

Being of a certain age, and unsympathetic to the virtual world, I usually raise an eyebrow and grunt indifferently when a package arrives for him.

When a particularly large parcel arrives I give off about the material world. (Though truth be told, hypocritical me is just as materialistic – it’s just that my materialism tends to come in the form of books, black vinyl and Mozart operas on DVD.)

My son has developed a way of ignoring me: it’s the noise-cancelling headphones that screen me out. If only I’d had them when I was his age.

I could have done with a set when my dad was delivering his weekly Saturday night, post-pub, lecture.

About a month ago a particularly large box arrived. It sat in the hall until he came home from college. I ignored it the way a cartoon character ignores a ticking bomb.

Like many modern families we live in our own little bubbles: my daughter in Facebook-land, my wife absorbed in monster TV franchises on her tablet, and my son in that no-go area known a teenager’s bedroom.

Only I live in the real world (or so I claim). So it took time for news to reach me that the box contained a state-of-the-art virtual reality headset – not one of those £10 jobs you put your phone in.

It’s reassuring to know that his student loan is going to good use. My frugal wife was apoplectic. I took the news in my stride. He is studying applied computing after all, so it could be regarded as a legitimate expense.

But my inner snob surfaced. Disdainfully I resisted the temptation to go and look at it.

Last weekend I relented and tried the damn thing on. His home ‘screen’ opens in a bedroom by Van Vogh – you want walk around it. I did not know my son was into the impressionists.

Then he took me to the outer edge of the earth to witness a solar eclipse, I was able to fly over Africa, and then drop into the heart of Florence beside the Duomo, rendered in 3D. I could walk to the café where we had cappuccino on the last evening of our visit there in July.

And then we headed to the shores of Lough Neagh – Lurgan is not yet rendered in 3D (was it ever?), but I was able to hover over Kilwilkie, and see the North Circular Road stretch round to the high school.

When I caught sight of St Colman’s cemetery where my parents are buried, I was home again, with a flood of memories – happy and sad – and my eyes welling up.

There’s nothing virtual in that: just a new way to tap into precious memories. Black Friday. Where’s the Amazon link to those headsets?

  • The article first appeared in The Irish News on November 25 2016