The Future of the Internet

Circa 1995.

David Post at the Volokh Conspiracy brings us this tidbit from 15 years ago (1995 was 15 years ago? Holy crap!) in which Clifford Stoll at Newsweek predicts that the internet will fail.

While I think it could be argued that the popular culture that the internets has spawned could be seen as Fail, the internet as a whole is very obviously going strong. Some of Stoll’s funnier 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. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.

Of course, I was able to access this 15-year-old article in a matter of seconds on an internet archive …

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.

I saw a pretty nifty book reader for about a hundred dollars. The more expensive version could hold about half of my library. Fits in your pocket. Buy book on the internet? That’s crazy!

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.

This gets better and better. And given he couldn’t see the believability of these almost obvious applications of the internet, which were being predicted 15 years ago, it isn’t surprising that he couldn’t conceive of a world of mp3s and streaming video that would allow you to download music and movies from across the world. And the porn! Think of the porn!

Post seems to take this in stride, and uses it as a teaching moment:

What’s so interesting about this, beyond just the embarrassment that Mr. Stoll must surely feel at reading his own silliness, is that it reflects the truly astonishing need that humans seem to have to accomplish the impossible, i.e. to predict the future. It cannot be done. Not in any meaningful sense. Kierkegaard had it spot on: The problem is life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.

, , , ,

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: