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Spirit of the (cyber)season

Does the embrace of online shopping lessen the meaning of the holiday season?

The essence of gift-giving is not just the gift itself but also the effort that goes into it. Few of us have the time or skill to make a gift from scratch, but we used to at least spend days finding just the right token of our affection.

Not long ago, holiday shopping entailed traipsing from one store to another with our list of loved ones. Ducking crowds, sorting through items, standing in line at cash registers. And then once we found the gifts, we had to lug them home, find the right wrapping paper and a suitable ribbon. And then there was the whole process of putting the wrapped gift into the mail or even delivering it in person. The entire enterprise required lots of time. Lots of effort and thought. It was hard work. That's what gift giving was all about.

But online shopping is displacing all of this. Minimum effort is the selling point for online retailers who now ask little of the giver beyond naming a price range, typing in an address, and then offering a credit card. Presto, it's done. Someone I know boasts she did all her Christmas shopping online in less than an hour.   
 
But wait. If thoughtfulness and effort are a big part of the value of a holiday gift, then almost-effortless holiday shopping contradicts the whole meaning and spirit of the exchange. Packages zip directly from the gift-giver's point and click, to computerized warehouses, to recipients -- without any evidence of human intervention let alone personal effort.

I've already received two holiday gifts whose givers weren't even identified, and another from someone whose name appears on an impersonal print-out that looks like a laundry ticket.  

Now call me old-fashioned, but I think we're losing something here. The thought behind the gift is as important as the thing being given. But we've automated and depersonalized gift-giving to the point where what's being given is just a thing without much of a thought.

About the author

Robert Reich is chancellor's professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He has served in three national administrations, most recently as secretary of labor under President Bill Clinton.

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