How great is technology? It can cure diseases, send humans into space and ensure that we never have to set foot in a Wal-Mart or Best Buy again if we don't want to.
On Black Friday, the day we flock to big box stores to save money on flat-screen TVs, that can be a matter of public safety. Every year, headlines pile up describing rage-filled altercations in parking lots and checkout lines. People have gotten trampled, stabbed, shot and pepper-sprayed. According to the website Black Friday Death Count, there have been seven deaths and 90 injuries in the last nine years.
Conventional wisdom has it that "Black Friday" refers to the day when retailers finally turn a profit for the year, thereby going into the black, but there's plenty of evidence that the original connotation was less sanguine. Some say Philadelphia police coined the term in the early 1960s, when frantic shopping resulted in traffic jams that strained their resources. Later, so as not to deter would-be shoppers, there was an attempt to change the moniker to Big Friday. It never caught on.
Given the pervasiveness of online shopping, you'd think the appeal of in-store stampeding would have gotten a little musty. Thanksgiving bargains are also online now, and not just on Cyber Monday, so named because of the cyber shopping binges that begin as soon as the price slashing starts at midnight and don't stop until consumers collapse in front of their computers or somehow cause their own pepper-spraying incident.
When it comes to Cyber Monday, I have to mix holiday metaphors and ask "How is this day different from all other days?" Not too much, if my own somewhat embarrassing habits are any indication. My recent online purchases include a bathroom wastebasket and 12 rolls of paper towels.
Future generations will probably regard brick-and-mortar retail establishments the way today's adults regard, say, outhouses. They will see them as relics of an unfortunate time when that most basic and primal human function — shopping — required a trip outside the house. The indignity and the inconvenience! To say nothing of the smells, the germs, the splinters on the buttocks. (OK, maybe not that last one.) Thank goodness for modernity.
Much of the Black Friday mania has been heightened by stores opening their doors earlier and earlier over the years. The 6 a.m. starting point eventually became 4 a.m., then midnight. Last year, several retailers, including Sears and Target, opened at 5 or 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.
That may be an homage, of sorts, to American capitalism, not to mention its trusty, symbiotic sidekick, the American work ethic: all those employees dutifully punching the clock on one of their few national holidays. But it's also a grievous insult to equally sacred values, like Mom, apple pie and football gluttony.
That's why we should do what the pragmatic Pilgrims would have done had smartphones been around during the first Thanksgiving: Let everyone do their online shopping at the table. Not only is this efficient and cost-effective, it discourages family arguments by discouraging conversation altogether.
There can no be tense disagreements over politics if everyone is mesmerized by a personal electronic device, gliding from purchase to purchase like skaters on the frozen pond near Grandma's house. It's hard to get too exercised over Donald Trump when we're thinking carefully about whether we want the Vitamix standard blender or the professional series in brushed stainless steel, and whether we can wait for standard shipping or absolutely must have it tomorrow.
In other words, a win-win. As for what to do if we aren't shopping on Black Friday, in California a nonprofit group is offering free passes to 49 state parks on the day after Thanksgiving. If that's of interest, you'd better take advantage now. Because once it catches on, those parks are going to be madhouses. People will be camping outside the gates for days just to get in free.
Meanwhile, the bears will escape to Best Buy to buy some flat screens.
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