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No venture captures these new infonomics better than eBay, the four-year-old auction site. The eBay miracle isn't that it allows you to clean out your attic at a profit--though that's not a bad invention--but that it changes the whole way that we set prices. On eBay, buyers get to decide what something is worth, so objects migrate closer to their true value. Recently a Maine antiques store put an old-fashioned calculator up for sale on eBay for $100. Within a few days the calculator-loving collectors of the Web had bid the price up to $6,500. The antiques sellers had had no idea that they were sitting on a gem. But the Web's information-driven economics helped find the right price.
Applied to the world of calculators, that's something of a curiosity. But applied to everyday retail, it's a revolution. The idea of fixed prices is only about 100 years old. Before then nearly everything was negotiable. The last great retail revolution was mail order, led by Sears, Roebuck in the 1890s, and it solidified the idea of fixed prices, since buyer and seller were often separated by hundreds of miles of rail track. In the Internet age even buyers and sellers separated by 10,000 miles of fiber-optic cable are closer than those prairie purchasers were to Mr. Sears. They are nanoseconds away, and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, speed kills. It kills old economics, it kills old companies and it kills old rules.
Bezos is struggling mightily to make sure it doesn't kill Amazon too. Even as he cuts off competition like eBay by getting into the auction business himself (partnering with no less than Sotheby's), he is also trying to make Amazon a model of i-age shopping. When we buy one book, Amazon's computers can tell us what other people who bought that book purchased (and what they thought of those purchases). Or the site's users can look up the most popular books at their company or in their hometown. A few clicks from Amazon's home page will reveal, rather worryingly, that the three most frequent Amazon purchases in Los Alamos, N.M., are the biography of an East German spymaster, a book about the black market for nuclear materials and a history of Soviet espionage.
There is, in all this, a kind of humanness that is exactly the opposite of what online shopping was supposed to be like. Amazon is not a depopulated, Logan's Run kind of store. The site allows readers to post their opinions about books, to rate products, to swap anecdotes. As you sit there reading, say, a literate and charming book review from Bangladesh, the real power of the Amazon brand comes home. It is a site that is alive with uncounted species of insight, innovation and intellect. No one predicted that electronic shopping could possibly feel this alive. If it is a sign of an e-world yet to come, a place in which technology allows all of us to shop, communicate and live closer together, then Jeff Bezos has done more than construct an online mall. He's helped build the foundation of our future.