A View of the Internet from 1995

I just came across one of my favorite articles again today.  It’s a Newsweek feature from almost 15 years ago about whether the Internet would actually catch on or not.  The article, The Internet? Bah! Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn’t, and will never be, nirvana, attempts to bring a dose of reality to the “Internet craze” sweeping the nation.  Written in 1995, the author starts the article with this quote:

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. 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. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?

Reading it now, the first part seems like it has to be an Onion article.  While most are laughable now, I don’t want to focus on what he got wrong.  Here’s a quick taste of some of Clifford Stoll‘s predictions from 1995:

  • “The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper”
  • “No computer network will change the way government works”
  • “You can’t tote that laptop to the beach”
  • “We’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.”
  • We won’t be able to find the information we want
  • The Internet won’t be useful in government
  • Computers in schools? “Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training.”
  • “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.”

He was clearly wrong about pretty much everything in the first section of the article, but I think he gets the second part partially correct:

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.

I think he was right that ultimately, online connections are indeed “limp substitutes” for the real thing, but he missed that the Internet could help people make connections with people they never would have had the chance to meet in their non-Internet lives.  I’ve made connections with people though my blog, facebook, twitter and other networks like Brazen Careerist, who I never would have run across if I weren’t online.

This article brings up another interesting issue.  People love this article now because Stoll was so wrong about so many things.  How will people in my generation look 15 years from now?  We have created huge amounts of content on blogs and social networks, much more than previous generations.  Much of this content contains strong options.

Surely many of us will be as wrong as Stoll was in his Newsweek article.  In 1995, Stoll’s article was fairly reasonable.  He was well informed, involved in the industry and took a strong stand on an issue he believe in.  Unfortunately, today it looks ridiculous.  There is no way Stoll could run for office and win.  His opponent would have more fun than Republicans who make fun of Al Gore for “inventing the internet.”

If an informed stakeholder can get something so wrong, isn’t it likely that most of us will probably write something that will be completely wrong 15 years down the road?  Will articles like these preclude us from running for office?  How about getting a job?  Should we be worried about how history will view our blog posts?

Like unflattering pictures posted online, I hope that blog posts that history proves to be wrong are forgiven.   As long as the posts were well written, logical and thought out, posts where we are wrong should not count against us.  Knee-jerk reactions or Glenn Beckesque rants SHOULD be held against the writer.  If not, we will have some boring future leaders who weren’t even willing to take a stand when they were young!

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