"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 March 1996. Updated every WEEKDAY.

It's A Mall, Mall World


[America's Choice Mall]

Like Bruce Springsteen, dBASE,

and the Boston Celtics, the mall

peaked in the late 80s. According

to the International Council of

Shopping Centers, America

boasted over 30,000 malls in

1988, with close to 2000 more

under construction. Things were

going so well that Youngstown

State University even created an

accredited four-year degree

program in mall management,

prompting one prognosticator

there to exclaim, with a

boosterism unsullied by the

slightest tinge of prescience,

"This is not an industry

that will slow down. It offers

unlimited opportunities to those

in the field."


Well, it did for about three




Then came the "big box" retail

brutes like Price Club and

Costco, as well as the downtown

revitalization movement. And

there went the people who used

to go to the mall.


[Fast Times]

By the early 90s, the

construction of new malls had

practically ceased, and

already-established malls were

folding like two-dollar bettors

in a high-stakes poker game.

Even the Sherman Oaks Galleria,

that faded diva of indoor

shopping, fell victim. In recent

years, the building has been

subjected to frequent butchery

from the interior designer's

knife - all in an attempt to

recapture the glory it had once

basked in as the star of the

zeitgeist-defining teen traumedy

Fast Times at Ridgemont High.


[Ethnic Mall]

But even as the retail brutes

were mauling the mall in the

real world, the architects of

cyberspace were raising it.

Today on the Web, it's like 1988

again. Do an Alta Vista search

on "mall" and you get 400,000

matches. There are regional

malls, ethnic malls, general

interest malls, and malls that

specialize in one thing only.

There are even malls of malls.


[Regional Mall]

If you think about it for a

moment, it all makes sense.

After all, the reason terra

firma malls lost favor was

because they worked too well. By

removing the obstacles that kept

people from spending too much -

inconvenience, lack of variety

and novelty, eventual hunger, and

fatigue - malls turned us all

into world-class scattergoods.

In the span of just a few

decades, malls reduced public

life to a collective shopping

spree, and left us all broke in

the process.


[Mall Directory]

With their food courts,

entertainment facilities,

daycare centers, and other

amenities, these machines of

consumption were the pivotal

agents in shopping's

transformation from housewife's

chore to national pastime. While

urban parks, national parks,

museums, theaters, sports

stadiums, and amusement parks

had been the crowning civic

achievements of earlier eras in

American life, throughout the

70s and 80s, it was a mall,

mall world.


[Newbury Street]

The unsustainable success of the

mall and its giant suck of

revenue and business ushered in

the next wave of retail

innovation: the more

civic-minded downtown

resurrections - with their

emphasis on community, open

space, restaurants, and

entertainment - and the

economy-oriented warehouse



[An American Mall on the Internet]

Still, an entire generation did

come of age in the mall. And now

that the valley boys and girls

of yesteryear comprise today's

most desirable demographic, what

better way to introduce them to

the new terrain of cyberspace?

In terms of Pavlovian

suggestion, the mall-as-metaphor

is an interface slam dunk. Just

as the Macintosh desktop

suggested to novice users what a

personal computer was for, the

cyberspace mall immediately

conveys the purpose of the Web

to newbies: shopping.


[Utopia Mall]

And as it turns out, the mall is

an excellent analogue to

cyberspace in terms of form, too.

Like the Web, the mall is a

timeless, placeless place - when

you enter one, you step out of

time and off the map, into a

new but always familiar

meta-territory: the Shopping

Zone. Architectural details vary

slightly, but every mall

exhibits that same

air-conditioned fluorescence,

that same casino-like

insularity. Past and future melt

away and everything reduces to a

series of transactions as you

drift from store to store to



[The Body Shop]

Hypertext is a natural extension

of the mall-browsing process, of

course: it takes you that much

more quickly from The Body Shop to

The Gap. But even with this

enhancement, cyberspace malls

are mostly a disappointment.

Terra firma malls may be

placeless places, but they are

places nonetheless. They are

three-dimensional, integrated

not only by proximity and the

same aesthetic, but also by a

common spatial language (the

ubiquitous mall fountain serves

as filler, a "huh" or "like" to

the tiled corridor's transitive

verb). More obviously, malls

speak the same promotional

language, and shout at us in

foot-high type about such retail

synergies as the mall-wide

sale. Most importantly, however,

all real malls contain shoppers.


Except for a few VRML

curiosities, cyberspace "malls"

are more aptly described as

directories, collections of

links that lead to static pages

which do little to hide their

origins as templates in an HTML

sweatshop. In most cyberspace

malls, there's no common space

to hang out, and no one else

to hang out with or watch.


[X Avenue]

Eventually, however, these

features will come. Perhaps

we'll even be able to slurp an

Orange Julius. In the meantime,

the power of metaphor appears to

be enough: currently on the Web,

the concept of the "mall" is

even spilling over into

non-retail arenas. What is

Pathfinder, after all, but a

mall of media?


Perhaps the most notable instance

of this mallocentric perspective

can be found at

www.townhall.com, a site which,

in a wonderfully evocative,

mid-90s-service-economy way,

bills itself as a "mall of

ideas." Here, busy

professionals, shopping for

something to replace their

threadbare liberalism with, can

try on a new conservative wardrobe

from name designers like William

F. Buckley and the Heritage

Foundation. In just a few hours,

they can conveniently fit you

with a whole new ideology.



The speech isn't free at

www.townhall.com, one imagines,

but if you wait until

Independence Day, you might be

able to get it for 20% off.

courtesy of St. Huck