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The landmine-infested task of predicting the future of the internet

SEATTLE, Washington - A fast-rising post on Digg today links to a 1995 article in Newsweek that discusses the over-hyped future potential of this "Internet" thing. Predicting the future is rough stuff, and anyone who does it in print has some degree of balls, but this author, Clifford Stoll, was way off.

Most people making predictions then were off in some way; I only choose to post this one because Clifford Stoll is, like me, an alumnus of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and one of my professors back then would occasionally mention that Cliff Stoll was an alumnus, and how great it was for Stockton to have such a notable technology guy as Cliff Stoll as an alumnus.

Some bits:

Visionaries 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. Baloney.


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.
..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.

Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly, and most (like mine) are ignored, but mechanisms have arisen to let people get only what they want, and the best of the best get picked up by many people; Paul Graham touches on this a bit in the "Amateurs" section of this essay. The fact that this article is popping up today is a demonstration of one of the mechanisms ( that is used in lieu of "editors, reviewers, or critics."

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.

Not only can you tote your laptop (or other device, unimagined by Stoll) to the beach, but Negroponte went on to found the One Laptop Per Child project - usable at many places above and beyond the beach.

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 obselete. 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.

Actually, I think the thing many people like about internet shopping is the lack of salespeople. Guess they're not a "most essential ingredient" of capitalism.

All of this appeared in Stoll's book Silicon Snake Oil, but it's now getting its little moment of sunshine on the internet, 13 years later.


wsb said...

Thanks for sharing - might have missed that otherwise - we were semi-early adopters in the mid-'90s phase of the interwebs (although I stuck a toe in during the heyday of The Source in 1980-81) and I remember the naysayers, as well as remembering helping get my then-employer (a local tv station) an online presence ... the url was laughably long, isp dot com slash somebody's account slash some subfile slash some other subfile slash name of station dot html slash pagename ... but we put it up on tv one day in '95 and were proud as new parents. To the point of personal interaction - the unexpected (perhaps) side benefit is that the net has facilitated it in a world that otherwise was contracting into little unconnected pods. From eHarmony to meetups, and beyond.