I thought I was immune to the Net.
BACK TO THE TOP
Then I got bitten by eBay.
By William Gibson
When I was a young man, traversing the '70s in whatever post-hippie,
pre-slacker mode I could manage, I made a substantial part of my
living, such as it was, in a myriad of minuscule
supply-and-demand gaps that have now largely closed. I was
what antique dealers call a "picker," a semi-savvy haunter of Salvation
Army thrift shops, from which I would extract objects of obscure desire
that I knew were up-marketable to specialist dealers, who sold in turn
to collectors. To this day I am often unable to resist a professionally
quick, carefully dispassionate scan over the contents of any thrift shop,
though I almost never buy anything there. Mainly because the cut-rate
treasures, the "scores" of legend, are long gone. The market has been
rationalized. We have become a nation, a world, of pickers.
There are several reasons for this. One has to dowith boomer
demographics and the cult of nostalgia. There are now more
fiftysomethings than there are primo childhood artifacts of a
similar vintage. Most of our toys, unlike the wood and
pot-metal of yore, were extrusion-molded ephemera,
fragile styrene simulacra, highly unlikely to survive the random
insults of time. A great deal of the boomer's remembered world
has been melted down, or crushed into unreadable fragments
in forgotten strata of landfill. What remains, particularly
if it's "mint in box", becomes increasingly rarefied.
Another reason, and this one is more mysterious, has to do with an
ongoing democratization of connoisseurship, in which curatorial
privilege is available at every level of society. Whether one collects
Warhol prints or Beanie Babies becomes, well, a matter of taste.
Mechanical watches partake of the Tamagotchi Gesture:
They're pointless yet needful, comforting precisely because
they require tending.
The idea of the Collectible is everywhere today, and sometimes strikes
me as some desperate instinctive reconfiguring of the postindustrial flow,
some basic mammalian response to the bewildering flood of
sheer stuff we produce.
But the main driving force in the tidying of the world's attic, the drying
up of random, "innocent" sources of rarities, is information technology.
We are mapping literally everything, from the human genome to Jaeger
two-register chronographs, and our search engines grind increasingly fine.
"Surely you haven't been bitten by the eBay bug," said my publishing
friend Patrick. We were in the lobby of a particularly bland hotel
somewhere within the confines of a New England technology park,
and I was in fact feeling twinges of withdrawal.
eBay, which bills itself as Your Personal Trading Community TM,
is a site that hosts well over 800,000 online auctions per day,
in 1,086 categories. eBay gets around 140 million hits per week,
and, for the previous few months, a certain number of those
hits had been from me.
And, in the process of adding to eBay's gargantuan hit-pile, several
days before, I had gotten myself in trouble. In Uruguay.
How this happened: I'm home in Vancouver, midway
through that first cup of morning coffee, in front
of the computer, ready to work straight from the dream-state.
I am deep into eBay, half-awake, staring at a scan of this huge-ass Zenith
diver's watch. And I am, mind you, a practicing ectomorph. I have wrists
like pipestems. I am not going to get too much wear out of a watch
that's actually wider than my wrist.
But a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and I know, having already
become of habitué of eBay's Clocks, Timepieces: Wrist Watches, that
the movement in this particular Zenith is the very one Rolex installs in
the big-ticket Daytona. Making this both a precision timepiece and possibly
an undervalued one - the identical thing having sold on eBay, the week
before, albeit in better cosmetic condition, for around two grand.
Rolex - Airking - Oyster Perpetual - Stainless Steel - ,
Smoke Colored Dial, Silver Hands and Markers,
Sweep Second Hand, Rolex Oyster Stainless Steel
Bracelet, 34 1/2mm Case, Screw Down Crown, Sapphire Crystal
"I didn't even know you had Web access," Patrick said. "You mean you've
overcome your infamous resistance to using the Net, but only in order to
service an eBay addiction?"
Well, yes. Sort of. Not exactly.
eBay is simply the only thing I've found on the Web that keeps me
coming back. It is, for me anyway, the first "real" virtual place.
In Patrick's hotel room, we used his laptop to get onto eBay, where I
discovered that, yes, I was still high bidder for the damned
Zenith: $500 American. This bid, you see, was the result of
Fiddling Around. I'd sat there in my office, not quite awake yet,
and had poked around with modest but increasingly higher bids,
assuming that the seller's hidden "reserve," the lowest bid
he'd accept, would be quite high. But no, at $500 I hit it, and
suddenly I was listed there as high bidder. This had happened
before, and I had always been outbid later. So I didn't worry.
Rolex - Zephyer - Two Tone - Oyster Perpetual Date - ,
Gold Colored Dial, Yellow Hands, Luminous Markers,
Sweep Second Hand, Date at 3:00, Gold Bezel & Crown
Stainless Steel Case, 34 1/2mm Case
But I didn't really want to have to buy this very large watch. Which
was in Uruguay. And now I was still high bidder, and the auction
would be run off before I got back to Vancouver.
I thought about having to resell the Zenith.
When I did get back, though, I discovered, to mixed emotions, that I'd
been "sniped." Someone, or rather their automated bidding software, had
swooped in, in the last few seconds, and scooped the Zenith for only the
least allowable increment over my bid.
How did I get into this, anyway?
I went happily along for years, smugly avoiding anything that involved
a modem. Email address? Sorry. Don't have one.
And then I got a Web site. Had one foisted upon me, actually, and quite
brilliantly, by Christopher Halcrow, who created William Gibson's Yardshow,
an "official" homepage. So I kept having to go into my kids' bedrooms and
beg for Web access to look at it, which bugged them.
Then Chris, who knows a bargain when he sees one, happened to buy this
Performa 5200CD from someone who was leaving town. He passed the Performa
on to me for what he'd paid for it, and suddenly I had this video-ready
machine I could look at my site on, and the video-ready part brought cable
into the office, so I got a cable modem, because it was faster, and I already
had a hole drilled in the wall, and then I discovered that, damn, I had
an email address. It was part of the deal. So email, over the course of
about 15 minutes, replaced the faxes I'd been using to keep in touch
with certain people.
In the way of things, very shortly, I no longer had a Web site, Chris having
found it necessary to get a life. But there was the rest of the Web, waiting
to be explored. And I did, and promptly got bored. It was fun, at first,
but then gradually I found that there wasn't really anywhere in particular
I wanted to go. I went a lot of places, but I seldom went back.
Then I found eBay. And I wanted to go back. Because eBay is, basically,
just a whole bunch of stuff. Stuff you can look at and wonder if you want
Mechanical watches are so brilliantly unnecessary.
Any Swatch or Casio keeps better time, and high-end contemporary Swiss
watches are priced like small cars. But mechanical watches partake
of what my friend John Clute calls the Tamagotchi Gesture. They're
pointless in a peculiarly needful way; they're comforting precisely
because they require tending.
And vintage mechanical watches are among the very finest fossils of
the pre-digital age. Each one is a miniature world unto itself, a tiny
functioning mechanism, a congeries of minute and mysterious
moving parts. Moving parts! And consequently these watches are,
in a sense, alive. They have heartbeats. They seem to respond,
Tamagotchi-like, to "love," in the form, usually, of the expensive
ministrations of specialist technicians. Like ancient steam-tractors
or Vincent motorcycles, they can be painstakingly
restored from virtually any stage of ruin.
And, as with the rest of the contents of the world's attic, most of the
really good ones are already in someone's collection.
But the best of what's still available, below the spookily expensive level
of a Sotheby's watch auction, can still be had for a few thousand dollars
at most. At the time of this writing, the most desirable vintage Rolex
on one New York dealer's Web site, a stainless steel "bubble back" automatic,
Rolex - SS, bubbleback, Men's. 31mm in Diameter.
smooth bezel, white dial, gold arabic (12,3,9), others
gold triangular markers, super precision, automatic,
Very Very Good Condition.
is priced at $3,800, a fraction of the cost of many contemporary watches
by the same maker. (And it's so much cooler, possesses so much more
virtu, than one of those gold-and-diamond Pimpomatic numbers!)
My father bought a stainless steel Rolex Oyster with a stainless band at
a duty-free in Bermuda in the early '50s.
Rolex - Oyster Perpetual- Datejust - Stainless Steel, Serial #3,214,
White Dial, Silver Hands and Markers, Sweep Second Hand,
Date at 3:00, 36mm Case, Stainless Steel Jubilee Rolex Bracelet
After his death, not very long after, my mother put it away in a bank vault,
from whence I wheedled it when I was 18 or so. I had a Rolex dealer in
Tucson replace its white dial with a black one, so that it would be more
like the one James Bond wore in Fleming's novels. I loved it, and, one
very sad night a few years later, I sold it for very little to a classmate
of mine, in order to pay for a hotel room in which to enjoy, if that's
the word, a final bitter tryst with my high school sweetheart. It was one
of those dumb-ass, basically self-destructive gestures, and I actually
don't regret it. I needed that hotel room. But I've always missed that
watch, that Rolex Oyster Precision,
and have always had it in the back of my mind to replace it one
day with another of similar vintage. I had never done anything about it,
though, and made do quite happily with quartz. My last quartz watch was
a French faux-military job I bought at the airport in Cannes, on my way
home from the film festival. Cost about a hundred dollars. Perfectly adequate
for everything - everything except the Tamagotchi Gesture.
Last year, for some reason, I was struck by an ad, one that ran repeatedly
in the British men's fashion magazines, for the Oris "Big Crown Commander."
It was just a very good-looking watch, I thought, and it was Swiss, and
mechanical, and not terribly expensive as such things go. Driven in part
by my then brand-new Web access, I used a search engine to determine that
Oris had no Canadian distributor. This made the watch seem even cooler,
so I went on, via the Web, to locate a Seattle retailer who carried what
a sarcastic friend had taken to calling the Big Dick Commando. (The crown,
the bit you twist to set it, see, is rather more than usually prominent,
so that you can do it without removing your whacking
great RAF pilot's gloves.)
And I was and am quite happy with it.
Except that, though I didn't know it at the time, my search for the Big
Crown Commander had inadvertently exposed me to the eBay bug.
I punched the Reload button like a bandit-cranking granny,
in case somebody outbid me.
I got a little compulsive, eventually.
I found myself coming down to my basement office every morning
and going straight to that one particular bookmark. New auctions
are posted daily on eBay, so there was always something new to look at.
The first watch I bought was a Croton "Aquamedico," a rarish - or obscure,
depending on how you look at it - Swiss manual-wind from the late '40s
or early '50s, black dial with a white medical chapter ring. (Getting the
terminology down was a big part of the kick, for me; a medical chapter
ring is an outer, 60-second set of graduations that facilitate taking a
patient's pulse.) It had been listed by a seller who didn't seem to be
particularly into watches; the language of the listing was casual, non-specialist,
and not much mention was made of the watch's condition. Email to the seller
elicited the opinion that the watch looked as though "it hadn't been worn
very often," which I liked. The scan was intriguingly low-res, but I really
liked the design of the numerals. And I really liked its name, "Aquamedico,"
which for some reason evoked for me the back pages, circa 1956, of Field
& Stream and True.
Tentatively (but compulsively) I placed a low bid and waited to see if
the Aquamedico attracted much attention from the eBay watch buffs. It didn't.
In the meantime, I determined that Croton was a long-established Swiss
maker whose watches had been a lot more prominent in the United States
in the '40s and '50s. Full-page ads in wartime Fortune.
Tissot - Navigator - 2 Register Chronograph
- Stainless Steel - 17 Jewel Manual Wind, CAL 872,
Brown Dial, Luminous Hands, Black Luminous
Markers, Round Pushers, 30 Minute Register at
3:00, Sub Seconds at 9:00, Screw Back,
38 1/2mm Case, Completely Serviced
I decided to go for it. To try and buy this thing. To import a unique object,
physically, out of cyberspace. Well, out of Pennsylvania, actually, but
I did experience this peculiar yearning to turn the not-so-clear scan on
my screen into a physical object on my desk. And for all I knew, it might
be the only Croton Aquamedico left, anywhere. (And in fact I've only ever
seen one other Aquamedico since on eBay, and it was gold-filled with a
white dial, neither of which I liked as much.)
On the night of the auction, after having carefully considered bidding
strategy (and this with no prior experience of bidding in any kind of auction),
I placed a bid for considerably less than the $200 limit I'd set for myself.
That put me in high-bidder position. And then I sat there.
Tavannes - Waterproof Case- Stainless Steel - 17 Jewel
Manual Wind, CAL 4048, Silver Dial, Luminous
Hands & Markers, Sub Second Dial at 6:00, 24 x 39mm
Rectangular Case, Fancy Lugs
What if, it occurred to me, someone noticed my Croton in the auction's
last few minutes and decided to grab it? eBay's system of proxy bidding
encourages buyers to offer the most they're willing to pay for an item
- their "maximum" bid. My maximum bid was $140. But on eBay you don't
necessarily end up having to pay your maximum bid. In an auction house,
if you raised your hand to bid $200 on a watch, you'd be on the hook
for that amount. But on eBay, each auction has a set "bid increment" -
with some as little as 5 cents. With a $2 set bid increment, a rival could
bid $200 on my watch, beat me out, and end up having to pay only $142,
or $2 over my maximum.
Universal Geneve - Bumper Automatic
- Stainless Steel - Dial - 17 Jewel, CAL 138.ss,
Silver Dial, Yellow Hands and Markers,
Sweep Second Hand, Signed Crown,
Screw Back, 35 1/2mm Round Case,
I started to get nervous. (And this, mind you, was before I even knew about
sniping-software and autobid bots.) What if someone else got this watch,
this watch I'd never seen but which I now, somehow, was emotionally invested
in winning? I began to have some sense of the power of the psychology of
auctions, something I hadn't really experienced before.
Tissot - Newtimer - Stainless Steel - New Old Stock-
Automatic, Red Dial, Black Numbers, Date at 6:00,
All Orginal, Original Band & Buckle, Tag,
40 1/2 x 44mm Case
I'm not a gambler. I've never put money on a horse, bought a lottery ticket,
or bet on a hand of cards. Just doesn't do it for me. I've engaged in
compulsive risk-taking behavior, certainly, but not the kind
involving games of chance. But here, I recognized, I was starting
to experience a buzz that I suspected was very much like a gambling buzz.
Ventura - V-matic - Stainless Steel - Automatic - CAL ETA 2894-2,
Chronometer-Chronograph, Undirectional Turning Bezel with
360 Degree Ratchet and Diver Markings, Waterproof to 220M/660ft,
Black Dial, Luminous Hands and Markers, Sub Seconds at 3:00,
12 Hour Register at 6:00, 30 Minute Register at 9:00, Stainless
Steel Bracelet, See Thru Back, 36.8mm Round Case
And what if, I asked myself, the Croton was really not all that desirable
an object, a lemon, something a serious watch-nerd would find laughable?
What if the seller simply cashed my money order and did a runner? But I'd
already checked his profile in the Feedback Forum, and there were lots
of people on record there as saying he was honest, prompt, goods as described,
and pleasant to deal with. (All of which turned out to be true.)
Zodiac - Seawolf - Automatic - Stainless Steel -
17 Jewel, CAL 71(ETA1700/01), Black Dial,
Luminous Hands and Markers, Signed Crown,
Original Stainless Steel Bracelet, Completely Serviced
Meanwhile, with less than an hour to go before the auction closed, I
was robotically punching the Netscape Reload button like a bandit-cranking
Vegas granny, in case somebody outbid me. I knew how long it would take
me to counterbid (not long), but I didn't know how quickly I could expect
the server to process my bid.
Into the final countdown, nobody else showing up, when one more click on
the Reload button produced ... a new high bidder! Galvanized, I scrambled
frantically through the bid process, and hit Bid. Real heart-in-mouth stuff,
this. And, I must say, really fun.
Zodiac - Hermetic - 14K Yellow Gold -
Manual Wind, White Original Dial,
Yellow & Black Hands and Markers,
Sub Second Dial at 6:00, Original Crown,
Engine Turned Bezel, 33mm Round Case,
Engraved On Back, Completely Serviced
Reload. And I was back, reinstated.
The auction closed.
The Aquamedico was mine.
I examined the address of the buyer who'd tried to outbid me at the last
minute. An "hk" suggested that he was out of Hong Kong, which
I already knew to be a hotbed of serious vintage-watch action. (The day
before, I had found a wonderfully bizarre site in Taiwan, a sort of micro
wrecker's yard, exclusively devoted to selling parts of Rolex watches:
cases, dials, hands, et cetera.) I loved it that this Hong Kong bidder
had popped in at the last minute, hoping to scoop what he, with his no
doubt very considerable watch-savvy, knew to be an extremely desirable
piece. But I had been there, ready, and I had prevailed.
I emailed the seller, sending my physical address and asking for his.
In the morning, I went out to buy a postal money order,
the standard medium of exchange on eBay.
When the Aquamedico arrived, however, I was dismayed to find that it was
peculiarly small, probably a "boy's" watch. I went back to its page on
eBay and noted that, yes, it was indeed described as being a 30-mm watch.
But the scan was larger than the watch itself, and I had assumed that 30
mm was standard (36 mm is actually closer to the contemporary men's standard).
And while the steel case was very nearly mint, even better than the
description, the crystal was in such rough shape that it was impossible
to get a clear idea of the condition of the dial and hands. It had arrived
from cyberspace, but it didn't really look like the scan. It looked as
though it had been sitting in a sock drawer, somewhere in Pennsylvania,
for 40-some years. Which it probably had.
But the seller's performance had been excellent, so I added my own note
of positive feedback to his profile, and he gave me one in turn.
I took the Aquamedico to Otto Friedl, a specialist in the care
of vintage Swiss Tamagotchis, down in the lower lobby of the
Hotel Vancouver, and asked to have it cleaned, lubricated, and
the crystal replaced. When I went back for it, I discovered that it was
a beautiful object indeed, the black dial immaculate, virtu intact.
But it wasn't the watch.
I told myself that there wasn't any the watch, and that I had simply
found my own way, after avoiding it for years, of compulsively wasting
time on the Net.
But I kept doing it. Opening that same bookmark and clicking down through
pages and pages of watches. Learning to read a restricted code. And there
was everything there, really:
Swatch - Chronograph - Quartz - New Old Stock - Box & Papers -
Creme Colored Dial, Yellow Hands, Red Markers, 30 Minute
Register at 2:00, Sub Seconds at 6:00, 12 Hour Register at 10:00
Swatch - Earth Summit '92 - Swatch's First Automatic -
New Old Stock - Box & Papers CAL ETA 2840, See Thru
Dial and Case Back, Luminous Hands, 36 1/2mm
Round Case, Original Strap
Swatches (which are collected like Barbies),
Swatch - Chandelier - New Old Stock - Full Presentation Box
with Papers - Quartz Movement, Silver Dial, Silver Hands,
See Thru Back, 34 1/2mm Round Case, Sweep Second Hand
the same battered Gruens
you would see gathering dust in a Kansas City
pawnshop, every sort and vintage of Rolex, wartime Omegas
with the British broad arrow stamped into the caseback,
German Sinn chronographs that you aren't really supposed
to be able to buy here, Spiro Agnew campaign watches...
And bidding. I'd bid a few times per week
and was usually content to let myself be outbid. But I did buy another
watch, from London, an oddly named Tweka with a two-tone copper dial. It
went for around $150 and had been listed as "NOS," which means new old
stock, something that supposedly has sat in the back of a jeweler's drawer
since 1952. Very nice, after a trip to Otto, but still not the watch ...
The software-driven sniper isn't really bidding -
he's skimming an existing situation.
eBay is a cross between a swap meet in cyberspace and a country auction
with computer-driven proxy bidding. The auctioneer is one of eBay's servers.
Tavannes - Waterproof - Stainless Steel - 17 Jewels Manual Wind,
CAL 404, Silver Dial, Copper Hands, Black Numbers, Sub Second
Dial at 6:00, Back Secured with 4 Screws, 23 x 34mm Case,
Buyers don't pay anything to eBay; they just pay sellers for the items
they buy. Sellers, however, pay a fee on each item they list, and another
fee if it sells. You can set this up so that your eBay seller's account
comes off your credit card. I doubt if anyone's seller account amounts
to much in a given month, but eBay moves a lot of items.
There's a sense of taking part in an evolving system, here. I suspect that
eBay is evolving in much the way the Net did.
I started visiting eBay just as user IDs were coming in. You can opt to
do business on eBay under a handle. I think that this was introduced in
order to foil spam-miners, who were sending bots into eBay to scoop up
email addresses. And I actually did get spam, my very first, after my initial
foray into eBay. But then I got a user ID and the spam stopped.
Looking over the Announcement Board recently, I saw that eBay now requires
credit card information before allowing users into such categories as firearms
and X-rated adult material: an age-checking strategy.
One thing I can imagine changing on eBay is the current requirement that
sellers who want to display scans of their items find an off-site page
on which to host their HTML. eBay links to tutorials on how to do this,
but it's just enough of a learning curve to discourage some people. Myself
included. If it were possible to send a scan directly to eBay, I think
selling would take a major step toward becoming a ubiquitous activity.
I find clutter, in my personal environment, oppressive. But crazed environments
of dead tech and poignant rubbish turn up in my fiction on a regular basis,
where they are usually presented as being at once comforting, evocative,
and somehow magical. The future as flea market. I really do tend to see
the future that way, though not exclusively.
My first impulse, when presented with any spanking-new piece of computer
to imagine how it will look in 10 years' time, gathering dust under a card
table in a thrift shop. And it probably will.
The pleasure afforded by browsing eBay is
the pleasure afforded by any flea market or garage sale. Something ruminative,
but with an underlying acuity, as though some old hunter-gatherer module
were activated. It's a lot like beachcombing.
Where eBay departs the traditional pleasure
of a flea market, though, is in its sheer scale and its searchability.
If you can think of a thing, you can search it on eBay. And, very probably,
you can find it.
If randomness is what you're after, though, there are ways to surf eBay,
rather than search it. Modes of sheer drift. Every item offers you a chance
to peruse Seller's Other Auctions, which can take you off into categories
of merchandise you wouldn't have thought of. A search for Hopi silver,
for instance, brought up other kinds of Native American artifacts, much
older ones, so that a series of clicks through stone adzes and Clovis points
led to an obscure monograph on mound-excavation in Florida in the 1930s.
But it was the watches that kept me coming back.
And I started to get sniped.
The best way to kick this habit, I decided, was to binge
on serious watches. Keepers.
I'd find a watch I wanted, work my way up
to high-bidder position, check my position
regularly (eBay regularly informs you of your bidding status, and outbid
notices arrive promptly, but it's still fun to check), and find, as the
auction ran off, that I'd been zapped, in the last five minutes of bidding,
by someone offering just one increment more than I had bid. I began to
smell a rat.
The nature of the rat became apparent when I started checking out
"Dutch" (multiple buyer) auctions of eBay-specific software, and
discovered that one could buy plug-ins that automated the
This bothered me. I thought about it. It bothered me more.
The idea of this software ran entirely counter to the peculiar psychology
of bidding at auction. The software-driven sniper isn't really bidding;
he's shopping. Skimming an existing situation. The sniper (or his software
package) is able to look at the final minutes of any auction as a done
deal, then decide whether or not to purchase that item at the fixed price,
plus one bid increment. Which pissed me off, and took some of the fun away.
A friend's hacker boyfriend, in Chicago, offered to write me a piece of
software that would outsnipe anything on the market. Tempting, but not
very. Instead, I sent eBay a message to the effect that allowing autobid
software detracted from the eBay experience. That it spoiled the chemistry
of the thing, which in my view was a large part of what they offered as
a venue. I also suspected, though I couldn't think of a convincing way
to put it, that sufficient proliferation of sniping software could eventually,
theoretically, bring the whole community to a halt.
I got no reply, and I hadn't expected to, but the problem seems in the
meantime to have been resolved. Entirely to my satisfaction, and in a way
that illustrates exactly how things have a way of finding their own uses
for the street.
Text of a message sent to all vendors of third-party bidding software at
eBay bid system change: Yesterday, through the help of an eBay user, we
detected and disarmed a 'bid bot' which had placed bids on hundreds of
items. A bid bot is a program which bids on
many items or the same item over and
over again. Our SafeHarbour team is tracking down the source of the bot,
and will be working with our lawyers
and the authorities to take appropriate action. In an effort to prevent
this type of system attack in the future, eBay plans to make an internal
change to the bidding process. Most of you will not notice this change.
It will NOT affect the interface you use at all. All bidding processes
will remain the same as they were before. Unfortunately, the change may
disable most, if not all 'automated bidding programs' (aka sniping programs).
We apologize for this, but it's important that we make eBay safe from robots
of this kind.
I'd love to know what that bot was bidding on. Beanie Babies, probably.
(A follow-up message partially reversed course: eBay would not outlaw bid
bots, but would require that they conform to sign-on procedures.)
With a level playing field restored, I decided to kick this eBay watch-buying
habit in the head.
Addictive personality that I am, I decided that the best way to do that
was to binge: to do a whole bunch of it at one time and get it out of my
system. To that end, I decided to buy a couple of fairly serious watches.
I bid on, and won, a late-'40s Jaeger two-register
chronograph in Hong Kong. The idea of sending a check off to Causeway
Bay for more than a thousand dollars to someone I'd never heard of, let
alone met, seemed to be stretching it a little. But Eric So, a B Tech (Mech)
at the Hong Kong Water Supplies Department and an avid watch fancier, was
so evidently honest, so helpful, and responded to email so readily, that
I soon had no reservations whatever. Once the check had cleared, the Jaeger
arrived with blinding speed and was even nicer than described.
And I did have one authentic auction-frisson over the Jaeger when, very
near the end of the auction, someone bidding "by hand" topped
me. This gentleman, when I checked his profile, appeared to be a European
collector of some seriousness. After I bid again, I waited nervously, but
he never came back.
My other binge watch was a Vulcain Cricket, an alarm-watch introduced in
the late '40s, which sounds like a very large, very mechanical cricket.
I wanted one of these because the older ones look terrific, and because
"Vulcain Cricket" is one of the finest pieces of found poetry I've ever
I found the best one I'd ever seen, offered by Vince and Laura, of Good
Timing, who, by virtue of tagging all their items "(GOOD TIMING)," have
built themselves the equivalent of a stall in cyberspace. Most sellers'
goods on eBay are spread, as it were, on the same huge blanket, but Vince
and Laura's tag allows them an edge in rep-building.
I think it worked, the binge cure. Possibly because getting serious about
choosing serious watches made the shuffling of pages a chore rather than
a pleasure. Whereas before I'd been able to veg out, in the style of watching
some version of the Shopping Channel that actually interested me, I now
felt as though I were buying real estate. Investing. Collecting.
I'd always hoped that I wouldn't turn into the sort of person who collected
I no longer open to watches on eBay first thing in the morning. Days go
by without my contributing so much as a single hit.
Or maybe I just have enough wristwatches.
I wonder, though, at the extent to which eBay facilitated my passage through
this particular consumer obsession. Into it and out the other side in a
little under a year. How long would it have taken me to get up to speed
on vintage watches without eBay? Would I have started attending watch shows?
Would I have had to travel? Would it have taken years? Would I have gotten
into it at all?
In Istanbul, one chill misty morning in 1970, I stood in Kapali Carsi, the
grand bazaar, under a Sony sign bristling with alien futurity, and stared
deep into a cube of plate glass filled with tiny, ancient, fascinating
Hanging in that ancient venue, a place
whose on-site cafe, I was told, had been open,
24 hours a day, 365 days a year, literally for centuries, the Sony sign
- very large, very proto-Blade Runner, illuminated in some way I hadn't
seen before - made a deep impression. I'd been living on a Greek island,
an archaeological protectorate where cars were prohibited, vacationing
in the past.
The glass cube was one man's shop. He was a dealer in curios, and from
within it he would reluctantly fetch, like the human equivalent of those
robotic cranes in amusement arcades, objects I indicated that I wished
to examine. He used a long pair of spring-loaded faux-ivory chopsticks,
antiques themselves, their warped tips lent traction by wrappings of rubber
And with these he plucked up, and I purchased, a single stone bead of great
beauty, the color of apricot, with bright mineral blood at its core, to
make a necklace for the girl I'd later marry, and an excessively mechanical
Swiss cigarette lighter, circa 1911 or so, broken, its hallmarked silver
case crudely soldered with strange, Eastern, aftermarket sigils.
And in that moment, I think, were all the
elements of a real futurity: all the elements of the world toward which
we were heading - an emerging technology, a map that was about
to evert, to swallow the territory it represented. The technology that
sign foreshadowed would become the venue, the city itself. And the bazaar
But I'm glad we still have a place for things to change hands. Even here,
in this territory the map became.
William Gibson is the author of Neuromancer and the upcoming
All Tomorrow's Parties (fall '99). He wrote "Disneyland With
the Death Penalty" in Wired 1.04.
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