Warm, fuzzy, and stupid

The lady on the phone at Bank of America (n饠Seafirst) was most understanding, and she left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling about that large multinational as I canceled my check card. How stupid was it of me to shop online with a credit card that draws directly from my checking account? Sufficiently stupid.

I must have won the stupid-Net-tricks trifecta this week, having used that card at not only CDuniverse but at Northwest Airlines (another card-theft target) and Amazon (who last week denied reports that card info was being stolen). In fact, I’ve been so profligate with that card that I didn’t even remember being a CDuniverse user until CEO Brad Greenspan sent a note telling me, Valuable Customer, about the theft—which I already knew about because I was drafting this column. I just didn’t realize it applied to me personally.

And so I spent 10 minutes on the phone with the nice B of A lady and came out of it with no more inconvenience than needing to go into a bank for cash for the next 7-10 business days. Maybe it would have been better for my card-using habits if she’d given me a hard time? And she doesn’t even know what I do for a living, which is to try convincing the reading public that the Internet is a wondrous thing but maybe not as friendly and bozo-proof as you’d believe to hear the likes of Amazon and America Online tell it.

Ah, yes—AOL. Those guys. Those really big guys. If you listened very carefully Monday morning, you could hear Bill Gates screaming “AND THAT’S NOT A MONOPOLY?!” I’ve personally found Time-Warner more disturbing than Microsoft since the day I called my then-cable provider to report a service outage and they changed the channels on my TV from their office. Cookies and the ubiquitous Windows logo have nothing on that for sheer skin-crawl value.

No lie: The company that controls the pipes controls the world. Of course, the definition of the Internet’s “pipes” effectively includes the operating system. (Gearheads familiar with the seven-layered OSI model may send flames to the usual address.) With 90-something percent of the market, Microsoft’s got the pipes (or will till the Department of Justice performs that bris they’re planning). With most of the cable systems in America in their grasp and the open-source worker bees of Netscape locked in their basement, AOL’s got the pipes now times two.

(And content? Please. I create content for a living, and if you honestly think AOL paid $166 bazillion dollars for content, you’ve never collected a writer’s princely paychecks, which are roughly equivalent to the salary made by any kid with a reasonably good paper route—an example, again, of the primacy of pipes. The only reason journalists are writing about the fabled Time-Warner “content” is that’s what keeps people’s attention. Most folks wouldn’t voluntarily read three sentences about cables and operating systems, but they’ll happily debate for hours about what this means for Frasier and Teen People. But I digress.)

AOL, for the most part, gives people a warm, fuzzy feeling, not unlike that dispensed by Kelsey Grammer or Britney Spears. My mom and brother use AOL, and I have been on AOL for nine (!) years. It is what it is, which is to say it is sufficiently stupid to make millions of people feel smart enough to use it. That’s something that Microsoft never understood—emboldened perhaps by the example of dictator-for-life Steve Jobs, whose Apple was sufficiently stupid but was undercut by more-than-sufficiently-stupid business practices. (Once again I digress.)

Warm and fuzzy not only counts but wins this game. The B of A lady was so soothing that I know I’ll have to remind myself to actually check my credit-card statements for a month or two, lulled into a false sense of security by the very largeness of the bank. It’s the same comfort level that let me trust all those online shops with my check card to begin with—I chose not to remind myself that behind the scenes it was highly possible that my card info was lingering (and it does linger) in vulnerable log files or database dumps. And it’s the same feeling that makes most folks smile to think of Larry King popping up on AOL and AOL popping up on their cable bill, rather than asking who loses when the Net gets big and stupid.

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