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

Categories: The Web

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.

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.


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