Terence Blacker: How the world turned into a village marketplace

Those hooked on eBay confess to buying things even when they are not needed
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The Independent Online

Last week, an Oxford undergraduate offered his dignity on-line and managed to sell this "totally unique, one-off item", complete with a certificate of ownership, for £67. In America, ready-made meals that the army had been handing out to hurricane victims are already on eBay. Not to be left out, China, the sleeping giant of the new capitalism, has seen babies apparently being offered online, at a going price of $3,450 (£1,950) for boys and $1,600 for girls.

The behavioural fallout from this new craze for direct buying and selling has been profound. The Priory Clinic, the retreat for well-heeled recovering addicts, has just reported that more and more punters are checking in suffering from an addiction to eBay. "I'd rather be bidding than dating," an enthusiast of the website told one newspaper.

Another woman revealed that buying on the internet was taking over her life, that she had to leave the table during dinner parties in order to make a bid, but felt powerless to do anything about it. "'What am I going to bid?' is one of the first things I think about when I wake up," she said.

Something rather peculiar is going on here, and it is not just caused by greed or the love of a bargain. Those hooked on eBay confess to buying things even when they are not needed, and go on chat-lines to swap exciting stories about their latest deals. The well-oiled propaganda machine that supports eBay suggests that trading online provides an escape from the wage-slavery of a job, and there are plenty of stories about people earning a good living from it. But, clearly, the obsession is more than a matter of money.

The business of bidding, of going to the Post Office to buy a postal order, sending and receiving parcels from around the world, seems to offer excitement to the bored, companionship to the lonely and even psychological succour to the needy. Like many a religious cult, eBay presents itself as a jolly, neighbourly support network but this "community", as the Priory would testify, is tuned into the vulnerability of some of its customers in an intimate, perhaps spiritual, way. Souls may not have been sold online, but some sort of Faustian deal seems to have been made with the auctioneer.

It is seductively easy to conclude that this phenomenon is another example of the internet's capacity to rot the brain and corrupt the spirit. In fact, something rather more interesting and cheering is happening. In the real world, as well as the virtual one, millions of people who have never previously been entrepreneurial have been put in touch with their inner market-trader.

The internet, supported by a slew of auction-related TV programmes, has encouraged a new, fresh-eyed attitude to the business of everyday, domestic stuff. The sort of household articles which were once taken for granted are now seen as a possible source of profit.

Auction houses have, over the past few months, been besieged by people who have been exploring their attics, opening old leather trunks in the hope that they contain something halfway saleable. Car-boot sales have become a favourite weekend activity, with ordinary, apparently sane people spending hours seated beside their cars watching strangers go through their old CDs, their Jeffrey Archer paperbacks and the knackered toys their children have outgrown.

Such sights would be pitiful if we happened to live in a country where poverty and unemployment were all around, but people are trading their domestic detritus, and sometimes buying that of others at knockdown prices, for the sheer fun and companionship of it.

By some strange paradox, the global village that is the internet has turned millions of people into small market-traders. The web may be worldwide but its effects are occasionally intimate and here, unintentionally, it has offered a reminder that, in a world dominated by the impersonal, homogeneous ghastliness of the supermarket culture, commerce - a deal there, a bargain here - can be an enjoyable human activity, a bit of an adventure with surprises, not always pleasant, just around the corner.

Suddenly, we are bartering and negotiating as if we are in a village marketplace and, apart from those sadly vulnerable folk who become hooked on eBay (and if they were not addicted to bidding, they would find something else to mess themselves up), the effect has generally been positive. More than £4bn worth of goods are sent through the post in the year and the result, miraculously, has been that a much-loved institution, the Post Office, is now doing well.

A rise of 10 per cent in postal orders has brought in an extra £350m a year. Largely thanks to the new trading boom, the Royal Mail has turned a loss of £1.5m a day into an annual profit of £537m. Clearly, it would a scandal and an absurdity if the Royal Mail continued to insist on closing more small branches, usually in rural areas.

There is something rather reassuring about the way the new technology has revived the pleasures of small-time wheeling and dealing and has also, by a happy accident, thrown a lifeline to the village Post Office.