Clifford Stoll, Newsweek 1995, Why the Internet will Fail

Except he didn’t actually say that.

Predicting stuff is hard, and human nature means that we love it when predications go drastically wrong. Think how many times Bill Gates has been reminded that he once said ‘640k ought to be enough for anyone’ or the alleged quote by an IBM employee way that there is a ‘world market for maybe five computers’. What’s missing from these is context,  which is something that Twitter is also great at stripping away from the information that is passed round.

Today I’ve seen a fair few tweets linking to an 1995 Newsweek article by Clifford Stoll. Actually more accurately, most of the tweets say ‘Why the internet will fail’ by Clifford Stoll. The headline  comes from the blog, Three Chant, which picked up an article from Newsweek in 1995 by Clifford Stoll, called ‘The Internet? Bah!’, sub title –  Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn’t and never will be Nirvana. In which he was arguing against

Visionaries [that] 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.

The Internet: Bah. Clifford Stoll, NewsWeek

Not exactly damning the future of the interwebz, if not an overly positive viewpoint. Admittedly he was wrong on some points, such as:

The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper,

However, on others he was spot on,

no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher

The main thrust of his argument was that even back in 1995:

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.(…)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.

The online landscape was very different back in 1995,  there were only 16 million online, access was far far slower, and more expensive and places to communicate were limited but yet it still seems familiar. Today there are over 1.6 billion people with internet access. We have countless more ways of expressing our opinions online, but we have got better at curating  the content that we, and others, produce. We’ve also got better at filtering out the noise and identifying the people we want to listen to, which is not necessarily a good thing.

Stoll covers other topics with varying accuracy but his final point;

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.

Still rings true, if it didn’t then there’d be no such thing as Twestival, CozyTweet Up, Tuttle or any of the other hundreds of organised or casual offline meet-ups that happen every day. Obviously the internet hasn’t failed, even the Stoll didn’t argue that it would, however neither it is any form of nirvana. It does have a dark underbelly,  characterised by sites like 4Chan and GenMay and even in the carebear areas like Twitter. Perhaps the one thing that Stoll should’ve forseen was that the vast increase in noise would lead us to be less questioning and to accept the news that slips through our carefully crafted online filters.

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