Monday, December 06, 2004

A merry virtual Christmas

I'm worried by the growth of online shopping. Not so much by sites like Amazon, which will ship actual physical things to you which you can then wrap and place under a Christmas tree, but by the growth sites selling virtual goods.

You can now go to a web site and spend a considerable amount of money, and all you'll get back in return is a decryption token or a license key for some piece of software. How does one go about wrapping a virtual present?

What is the defining thing about Christmas morning as a child? Surely it must be going down stairs and unwrapping the presents piled under the tree? More and more these days things just aren't like that. Even when I was a child there were gift certificates, funny coloured pieces of paper you could only spend in one shop. But does something like a gift certificate or actual folding money, let alone a virtual present, give the same tactile feelings of warmth and caring as unwrapping a "real" present does?

I do remember that no matter how well meaning, grown ups could never buy exactly what you wanted, indeed it seemed like the more well meaning the grown up, the less relevant the present. You always wished, at least when you got old enough, that they would just give you the money instead. But none the less there was always the special moment when you faced an awkwardly wrapped, oddly shaped, present and wondered whether it would turn out to be something you wanted.

Surely that's the beauty of giving a real physical present to a child, that you'll give them something that may change them. Something they didn't know they wanted till they got it. I can recall my first telescope, it wasn't something that I particuarly wanted, I hadn't asked for it and it was little used. I lived on the west coast of Scotland and the weather was rarely amenable to observing, but I still remember the one clear night when I was bored and dragged the telescope into the garden, because I'm sitting here doing what I do because of it. I've stood on every continent except Antarctica because my parents gave me a gift that, at the time, I didn't really want. It's odd how such a small thing can change your life like that.

So I'll be giving virtual presents this Christmas, because I know they'll be appreciated. But I'll also be giving some off the wall, probably unappreciated, presents. In all probability they'll end up unregarded at the back of a closet, but some might not...

Christmas isn't about receiving, or even about giving. As far as I'm concerned it's about the potential for change, it's about how small things can affect large things. This is why for me the presence of wrapped gifts under a tree is so important, and why I get so very stressed about choosing gifts for my nearest and dearest, I might be changing their life for the better if only I can choose the right gift. Isn't that the magic of Christmas is all about?

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