Monday, December 27, 2010

Amazon's gift-destroying "genius"

The days after Christmas are always filled with jokes about Aunt Edna's gift of a tacky sweater or how to lie to one's cousin about what happened to last year's gift of a three-foot tall Greek statue. So, it wasn't much of a surprise to see an article about Amazon's role in the lives of disappointed gift-receivers. What was surprising was the content of the article.


"Amazon is working on a solution that could revolutionize digital gift buying. The online retailer has quietly patented a way for people to return gifts before they receive them, and the patent documents even mention poor Aunt Mildred. Amazon's innovation, not ready for this Christmas season, includes an option to "Convert all gifts from Aunt Mildred," the patent says. "For example, the user may specify such a rule because the user believes that this potential sender has different tastes than the user." In other words, the consumer could keep an online list of lousy gift-givers whose choices would be vetted before anything ships."

"Most cleverly - or deviously, depending on your attitude toward this sort of manipulation - the gift giver will be none the wiser: "The user may also be provided with the option of sending a thank you note for the original gift," according to the patent, "even though the original gift is converted." (Alternatively, a recipient could choose to let the giver know he has exchanged the item for something else.)"

And all of this patented gift-returning is in the name of economics. Because shipping costs are so high these days.

So gifts aren't really gifts. They are economic exchanges that happen to fall around the 25th of December (the "holiday" time of the year). But the question is this: If the meaning of life itself is "gift" then how does the reduction of gift to economic exchange impact how I see my identity? If the way I define "gift" is getting or accumulating whatever it is I happen to want at this particular moment, then how does this impact whether or not I view Christmas itself as a gift?

A true gift requires a giver and a receiver. In Amazon's patented return world, the "giver" becomes oneself (mediated by a corporation), and the "receiver" becomes the same person as the "giver" (also mediated by a corporation). We aren't talking about true gifts anymore. We are fueling a culture of isolated, radically autonomous individuals who think true existence is self-sufficiency.

Whether or not Amazon's grand plan is ever officially unveiled, I think it's safe to say that the concept isn't foreign to how our society views the world today. So, thank you, Amazon, for leading us one step farther away from understanding who we are.

And, who are we, you ask? We were created by God an unique, unrepeatable persons ... a pure, complete, radical gift. Where there once was nothing, there is now something. And it's not just "something," but is you. You, as the "receiver" of the gift of yourself have the option of responding to the gift of your life with gratitude or rejecting the gift. And if you receive the gift of yourself, you are also called to give the gift of yourself in return -- returning your life in gratitude to God by serving others. This return of the gift is done irrevocably through marriage and religious life, which express through vows one's total self being "given."

I think I'm going to go enjoy the gift of coffee I received this Christmas now ...

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