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February 24, 2012 Published in Letters/Opinions

A Dangerous Trend

Opinion: Michael Gryboski

On a cold day with a white overcast sky I journeyed down King Street and went to Bradlee Shopping Center. Parking in the back lot, I ventured to a store that was the latest victim in a technological trend. The Blockbuster Video at that shopping center was once a major home entertainment provider, being crowded especially during weekends, holidays, and any time when bad weather abounded. It was open during Hurricane Isabel, even as the power was out and employees had to resort to manual checkout of products. It outlasted many of its rivals, like Hollywood Video and Purple Potamus Video. There was a special connection for me : I worked at that very Blockbuster for a year during my time at George Mason University.

However, times have done what they always do and changed. Most of the Blockbuster stores around the Bradlee location have already closed and within a matter of days the one off of King and Quaker will soon follow. The company will still exist, for unlike other brick and mortar places Blockbuster has an online component to its business. Indeed, I remember up-selling membership to it along with soda, candy, and popcorn. So it will live on, albeit through online rentals, downloads, and the occasional vending machine style box at local groceries. But not the stores.


There are times when progression can look more like digression. This is yet another example. Technically there is no longer a way for Alexandrians to rent something on the same day they want to see it. If someone wants to see a new release but does not want to buy it, they no longer have the option of driving to a store, finding it on a shelf, and checking it out to watch that very evening. Now they must put it in a queue, wait for it to come into the mail, and then after a couple days then they will have it. The only alternative is downloading, which indeed does give a similar benefit. In some circumstances, it would be more convenient than the traditional travel, hustle, and lines of brick and mortar business.


But that is only if the means through which people can watch said film or television show is available. And that is the dangerous trend that is occurring, not just with luxury items like video rental places, but other more important services. If the Internet is unavailable, then the downloading is unavailable. If the downloading is unavailable, then what used to take a relatively short car ride now takes days at quickest. Further, the ability to see the film becomes as possible as it was back in the 1940s when movies appeared only in theatres and then unless re-released or shown on TV were lost to history.


The dangerous trend expressed through the emptying shelves of Blockbuster Bradlee is a trend that comes into many venues: a total reliance on the Internet. Taking the plank out of my eye before attempting to remove a speck, I admit my own strong connection to this cyber world. I have multiple email accounts, a Facebook, a Twitter, and a website. I write opinion pieces for one online publication while writing news articles for another. I have done my share of online transactions and find it convenient and quick. I find the Internet useful and often a better alternative. This brave new dimension would not have become a powerful force were it not for its benefits.


The problem is not with the Internet per se, it is with the Internet being the one and only source for business and information. It is just fine to have online rentals, but without another means to deliver service there is a strong vulnerability. The same can be said for buying other items online. News articles on paper and on screen have frequently talked of the danger to brick and mortar businesses because of the online world. Bookstores like Borders have died away as well, newspapers are experiencing declines in subscriptions, and many even talk of putting the Post Office out of its misery in return for exclusively electronic delivery of mail. Those who support such efforts argue that it is more convenient to access these services online.


And yet no one who favors this trend seems to understand that there is always a chance that the Internet will become unavailable. There is a no guarantee that the Internet will be around forever, neither is there any guarantee that services will be uninterrupted. Remember that during those political upheavals in the Middle East governments were able to close off entire countries from Internet access for a considerable period of time. To say nothing of the occasional days long power outages or downed cables that have made travel to this cyber dimension impossible.


By putting everything online and leaving nothing in the physical world, we set for ourselves up for our own doom. If we continue to remove physical building services, then an Internet outage will have increasingly harsh consequences. If the Post Office falls, then an Internet outage would terminate communication with friends and family as email and social networks would be inaccessible. Power, water, and other utilities would shut off as people would resort to exclusively paying their bills online and therefore without access could not pay for their services. These are all speculative of course, but they are also very possible.


So as Blockbuster Bradlee closes down, resorting to exclusively online services, and as other more necessary services follow suit, I cannot help wonder how pitifully easy it will be in the future to defeat us the superpower. Right now, even now, a long term loss of Internet access would severely inhibit our society from functioning. Come the near future, when still more is monopolized by the online, I see not a world of advancement but one of digression and frightening vulnerability. What better place to convey this message than on a website online?


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