Internet schminternet

Ironically, Newsweek’s online archive is the best place to find this article from 1995 decrying the hype around the internet (which was emailed to me by a business associate).  Almost 15 years ago, Clifford Stoll claimed it was ludicrous to expect the online world to provide news, information, and social interaction.  “Baloney,” Stoll says.  “Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth [is] 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.”

Stoll’s arguments make sense if you remember the internet in 1995.  Back then, the online experience started with a screeching modem, and downloading a file took minutes rather than seconds.  And sending money was dicey to say the least, which made e-commerce a non-starter:

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.

Today, there are probably major malls that don’t do as much business during the Christmas season as the internet does in the blink of an eye, thanks to secure online payment systems.  It turns out, people don’t need salespeople when they have hordes of consumer sites and online reviews to get unvarnished information from.

But the shift has been more than technological.  There is a cultural acceptance of the online world that didn’t exist 15 years ago.  Further, the online world has self-organized in a way that Stoll and others did not anticipate.  For instance, Stoll bemoaned the Usenet bulletin boards, claiming that because everyone had a voice, everyone would get drowned out.  A similar criticism could have been made ten years later as blogs became more prevalent.  As society has become more comfortable online, they have found the sources of information they trust the most.  Anyone can have a blog, but not everyone will have a well-respected or popular blog.

Stoll was right about one very important thing, and that is the role of the internet in personal relationships.  “What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact.” Stoll concluded.  “Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another.”  In 1995, internet enthusiasts envisioned a way to connect with people from around the world – “Play Mortal Kombat with a friend from Vietnam,” was the promise Jim Carrey made in The Cable Guy – and maybe Stoll was right to dismiss that idea.  As the internet evolved, though, it became a tool to maintain connections that would have otherwise frayed.  Facebook can make every day a twenty-first century high school reunion.

It’s hard to predict how technology will change in 15 years.  It’s hard to predict how people will change, too.

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