In 1995, Newsweek writer Clifford Stoll decided the Internet was nothing more than a passing fancy. He was so convinced, he penned a hearty screed decrying prognosticators who suggested the Internet would amount to anything more than a noisy, cluttered nuisance of random data. Stoll was, obviously, quite wrong. He even admitted as much in a comment response to Boing Boing's story about the recent resurrection of his piece on a blog, saying "Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler."
But what is fascinating about the story "The Internet? Bah!" is how eerily accurate much of it is, just in the opposite direction. Many of the things Stoll believed would never happen actually happened and in remarkable fashion. But, digging deeper, Stoll wasn't wrong about everything and he did hit upon a significant problem plaguing the web today without being close to understanding its magnitude.
First, let's address what he got wrong.
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.
What Stoll failed to realize is that digitizing content would actually make it easier to find and more readily available. He couldn't possibly have known Google would come along and make those documents searchable. He also could not have known that the mass of data would eventually become a vast research resource that is invaluable to people every day.
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.
This is perhaps his biggest misstep and represents something many who grew up in the pre-Internet era have found difficult to swallow: technology replacing people. It is true that stores still outpace Internet sales, but those days are coming to a close. Stoll had no idea that using credit cards would become as safe (sometimes safer if you ask Target) as using them in person, but even so, the idea that we need salespeople to make purchases is a throwback to a time when a sales force was an "essential ingredient of capitalism."
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?
In fact, the Internet has, in many instances, deepened human contact. It has put us in touch with people and places we may never visit and given us access to cultures we didn't even know existed. It connects us to friends we thought we had lost and helps us find relatives we didn't even know we had. Sure, it can be isolating, but it can also be liberating. Too often, people fear the Internet will be a replacement for human contact, but something Stoll didn't see coming is that rather than replace it, the Internet enhanced it by giving us more means of communication that we ever dreamt possible.
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 Intenet. Uh, sure.
This is probably the funniest of all his assertions. If anything the Internet and technology have completely revolutionized the way we digest content, most specifically media. It has had dire consequences for publishing mediums, in fact. It's no wonder Stoll was concerned. But, did he get anything right? Well...
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 videogames-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.
Imagining a computer screen and CD-ROM (remember those?) as a replacement for a real, live teacher is akin to cartoons from the 1940s envisioning entire meals coming in pill form or flying cars. In the world of education, one-on-one contact is still the way most people learn best. This is not to discount the incredible advances computer technology has afforded students and teachers. But, a replacement? That's hard to imagine even today.
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, harrassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.
This may have been the most incisive and interesting of all his thoughts on the matter as this has become one of the primary problems with the Internet. Without curators, the rush of data that flows from sources far and wide is difficult to decipher. It often sounds like white noise and looks like static. But, what Stoll did not see coming only compounded matters...
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.
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Imagine Stoll's horror had he known at the time about blogs and YouTube and streaming audio and MP3s. While all this has served to democratize the Internet, it has also dramatically increased the static. Just because everyone has something to say doesn't mean everything has something interesting to say. The result is news often driven by lowest common denominator interests and baser desires simply because it pays better than more in-depth coverage. Bands with bad music and clever videos are catapulted to near stardom and any celebrity who is meme-worthy can find fame without achievement.
A simple analogy lies in music. We can now fit music libraries on a device the size of a credit card, but can we actually listen to the 30,000 songs we own? One of the great benefits of the disc jockey or the critic or the record producer or the talent scout was they did the job of filtering out the garbage so you didn't have to sift through it yourself. Sometimes, that meant they blocked access to brilliance as well, but today, it is nearly impossible to find genius in the giant rubble pile of streaming music and downloadable MP3s.
While Stoll's dystopian vision of what might be were technology in general and the Internet specifically to follow the path set down by the predictors of his time didn't come true, it is fair to say that despite his mistakes when laughing off what he saw as ridiculous advances that would eventually come to pass, his heart wasn't necessarily in the wrong place.
I'll be the first to admit that technology has been tremendously beneficial to me and the world in many, many ways. But, it has also led to a kind of information white-out that often blinds us to information we really need and distracts us from what is important. We still have yet to find the kind of filter that balances our nearly insatiable desire for information with our brains inability to process the amount we are given. At least in this regard, Stoll's predictions weren't that far off base even if the rest of his rantings were.