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The internet? Bah! (A look back at what one “expert” thought about the internet 15 years ago)

March 1, 2010

It’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without the internet.  The world practically runs on it nowadays.  Well, back in 1995 the outlook was a little grim according to some people.  For the casual user, there wasn’t a whole lot to go on.  It was still difficult to research a term paper or buy something.  But that has since changed. 

Circa 1995

A Newsweek columnist named Clifford Stoll wrote an article entitled The Internet? Bah! Why cyberspace isn’t, and never will be, nirvana.  He seemed to think that this whole internet fad was going to fizzle out pretty quick.  

Oh yeah, he totally looks like someone I would listen to. Seen any UFO's lately?

Again, I know back then the internet was still in it’s infancy.  But this article puts forth an incredible lack of foresight.  Especially coming from a very educated person. (He has a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona)  Let’s break down, piece by piece, what this expert thought about the internet a decade and a half ago.  Here we go… 

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic. 

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works. 

If he would have just written the first paragraph and left it at that, Stoll may have been considered a visionary.  But instead, he calls it lunchmeat.  Online services haven’t totally replaced newspapers yet, but it’s picking them off one by one.  Moving on…

Consider today’s online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen. How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure. 

He says to consider the internet technology of that day.  Apparently, Stoll figures that technology had peaked and there was nowhere else to go. 

What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is that the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them–one’s a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn’t work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connections, try again later.” 

Won’t the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen. 

The Battle of Trafalgar?  The British whipped the Spanish and French.  Done.  Maybe he should have done a search for putting+one’s+foot+in+one’s+mouth.  And again, it seems he assumes that technology won’t advance any further than it already has.  At the risk of sounding redundant, the internet was in its infancy.  

Then there are those pushing computers into schools. We’re told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software.Who needs teachers when you’ve got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love video games–but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I’ll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life. 

Let’s see, I remember Conjunction Junction.  And I agree that human teachers won’t be totally replaced by technology anytime soon, but 10 years before this article came out I was playing Oregon Trail on an Apple IIe in my classroom. 

Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. 

I’m sensing a theme here: he is comparing what the internet is supposed to be able to do in the future to what it did at that time, that technology would never get any better than it was in the amazing year of 1995.  He must still be flipping out over Tivo.   And since when are salespeople the essential ingredient of capitalism?  The essential ingredient of capitalism is capital.  What’s better than that is that Stoll now sells hand-made glass.  Where, you ask?  Over the internet.  And now, his big finale.

What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing? While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where–in the holy names of Education and Progress–important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued. 

I do agree that the internet has severely cut down on human contact.  And sure, a live concert is better than a multimedia display and cybersex is not close to the real thing, but they’re both easier to obtain and cheaper online (at least the concert one is). 

Overall, I would have to give Stoll’s Nostradamus ability a failing grade.  I read this article for the first time a few weeks ago, and it still amazes me that someone that writes a column for such a “prestigious” magazine could be so shortsighted.  Sure, I didn’t have any idea that the internet would be like it is now, but I certainly knew it had possibilities.  He was the 90’s version of the people who were convinced that the car would never replace the horse.


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