Pop Rocks: 1995 Newsweek "Why the Internet Will Fail" Essay Actually Predicts Its Successes

Categories: The Web

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Imagine how THIS would have freaked people out in 1995.
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.



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