The hazards of being skeptical: Clifford Stoll on the Internet in 1995

crystal-ball-219x300Here’s an amusing little article I just discovered tonight thanks to a friend passing on the link. It involves Clifford Stoll, author of the 1989 book The Cuckoo’s Egg about catching a hacker years before most people even knew what the Internet was, pontificating on this new-fangled Internet thing for Newsweek back in 1995. (His book, Silicon Snake Oil, expanded on these themes.) Drawing on his twenty years of on-line experience, Stoll declared that most predictions for the future of the Internet were overblown, and went on about it in great detail.

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 cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.

Of course, Usenet was never terribly user-friendly. If you knew enough to read Usenet in the first place, you were probably at least partly a nerd, with all the hangups and quirks that entailed. Just a few years later, blogging came on the scene. Not only was it easy for anyone to write, it was easy for anyone to read, too. And it’s a lot easier to filter by just reading the blogs you like than it was to killfile or scorefile Usenet.

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.

Yeah, I gotta give him this one. There’s no way anyone would ever want to buy books or newspapers over the Internet. It’ll never happen. Really!

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."

What a difference a few years makes. I google “Battle of Trafalgar” and the first thing that pops up is the Wikipedia entry. “The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a naval engagement fought by the Royal Navy against the combined fleets of the French and Spanish Navies…” Just goes to show, don’t necessarily judge the capability of future by the limitations of the present. Of course, Wikipedia isn’t an authoritative source to cite for a paper—but if you’re just wanting the date, why, right there it is. Of course, it would be six years after he wrote that article before Wikipedia was even founded.

But the biggest counter-example to another of Stoll’s points, Amazon.com, had actually been founded the year before:

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.

It’s hilarious how accurate this particular prediction Stoll was pooh-poohing has turned out to be. People are buying stuff like crazy over the Internet. I’m using Amazon Prime to send gifts to my friends and hardly setting foot in a mall. So are my parents, who are about as un-techie as it’s possible to be and still use the Internet. Booking airline tickets over the Internet is a major business, many restaurants do take reservations that way, and so on. And the people who run brick-and-mortar stores are very worried about e-commerce making them obsolete. But again, Stoll got it wrong:

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.

The reason his mall did more business was that e-commerce hadn’t really gotten started yet. The “trustworthy way to send money over the Internet” thing was solved pretty early on with SSL encryption. And a lot of people prefer being able to shop without feeling like salespeople are pushing them.

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.

He also failed to predict the allure of social networking. These days we all have plenty of friends all over the world, who we can’t just “meet over coffee.”

And there’s this gem:

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.

Now we’ve got the Whitehouse.gov petitions site, where the White House guarantees it will respond to any petition that can get 100,000 signatures. And, as this Slate retrospective on the piece points out, one of the year’s biggest political scandals has been the failure of a government web site.

Of course, to be fair I am cherrypicking the most humorously wrong predictions from the article. He wasn’t entirely off on all his points: telecommuting is still considerably more the exception than the rule, and teachers are still more important than technology in schools. (Indeed, the problems encountered by some of the some of the tablet-in-school roll-out projects suggests he got it right when he said, “These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training.”)

Stoll himself was a good sport about it, back when BoingBoing called him on it in 2010. “Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Mig
ht be wrong, Cliff…” And he’s certainly kept up with the Internet; here’s a TED talk he gave in 2009. And he was far from the only Internet naysayer at the time, though it’s hard to find many of the other articles online. The final irony may be that, thanks to the very search engines Stoll didn’t find useful at the time, people will be independently rediscovering, pointing, and laughing at this article for years to come.

In the end, the thing to take away from this is that it can be hard to predict the future even (or especially) for experts. What people used to the current ways of doing things see as insurmountable obstacles, someone else may just consider a minor problem that hasn’t been solved yet.

8 Comments on The hazards of being skeptical: Clifford Stoll on the Internet in 1995

  1. Quote: “What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact.”

    Stoll was right on that one. That’s where the employees of brick-and-mortar stores have it over those who fill our online orders in giant warehouses where the workload makes even talking with fellow employees impossible. Dreadful! It makes me feel a bit guilty that I just ordered an electric toothbrush from Amazon.

    Fritz Lang predicted something similar in his 1927 film Metropolis. You can find surviving portions of it here:

    Well worth watching if you have over two hours to spare and can appreciate a silent film. At that time, it was the most expensive movie ever made.

    It just came to me that watching silent films might make you better at recognizing body language and facial expressions.

    –Michael W. Perry, Inkling Books

  2. Was there anyone, outside of a few ivory tower futurists, who 20 years ago accurately predicted the internet?

    Also, “Usenet was” ?? Usenet still is. And will probably outlive Facebook and Twitter. (There’s a prediction you can check in a decade.)

  3. Oh, c’mon, Michael. I don’t need “human contact” if I want to buy a specific book or movie, or a box of ballpoint pens or whatever. The only “human contact” I have most times at the grocery or office supply or electronics store is the cashier—and if I use the self-checkout lane, I don’t even have that. (Not to mention that it’s practically impossible to find a human in such stores when I need one; often I have to resort to calling the service desk on my cell phone to ask for help!) Small wonder Amazon may even be about to eat a significant portion of grocery stores’ lunch.

  4. One of my recent favs is the “information/research/opinion/news” going around that those who read in print comprehend at a higher level than those who read on a screen. Obviously older people who can only continue reading because they can enlarge fonts were not included in the sample group. Kinda like asking RJR about the many health benefits of Marlboros. Usually the louder the denials the more revolutionary the coming changes will be.

  5. Katherine Falk // December 19, 2013 at 3:23 pm //

    “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.” Actually, I’m going to play devil’s advocate and say that this is true! There’s not a day that goes by without one of my Facebook friends posting some bit of clickbait that is poorly sourced and largely inaccurate. Sure there is a wealth of accurate information online that we could have only dreamed of once upon a time, but that’s not all that’s there, alas. Too many people have no idea whatsoever how to tell the difference or dig deeper.

    I think information survival courses should be offered early, late and often.

  6. I started working the internet in 1988 running a statewide bulletin board for K-12 teachers as a sideline to my university administrative work. I devoured Stoll’s first book like a starving dog. It was exceedingly hard to understand what was happening all around us. Not like today when everything is documented. There were no non-technical people using the internet until AOL provided a gateway and millions of the unwashed bipeds of the forest descended upon us. This was a major cultural clash. Some of the original internet homesteaders labeled it as the “day the internet died.”

  7. I was there when the eternal September began. Alas. Barely had time to come to love the Internet while it was still civilized, then boom. September for the rest of time.

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