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Why the Internet will fail: An essay from 1995

Whether you want to appear smart, hate the mainstream and want to go against the flow, or just because you’re an annoying dweeb, everyone makes the occasional wild prediction. But predicting the Internet would fail? That’s possibly the worst call in modern history.

This award goes to astronomer Clifford Stoll, who penned an essay for Newsweek in 1995 detailing why the Internet would never work. To top it all off, he wrote a book as well.

It may just rival the Mayan prediction of the end of the world, or British Post Office chief Sir William Preece’s discrediting of the telephone.

Stoll’s main argument, published on Newsweek almost 20 years ago, was that, “Hardware and software will all top out in the mid-90s and, thus, the Internet will never ever get any more user friendly or portable. Also, it is different and scary.”

We agree that the Internet is scary, especially when our mum finds out how to use Google and won’t stop bleating about how amazing it is. Also, it’s responsible for the widespread practice of selfies and plethora of food pictures. Not. Good.

But with nary a mention of selfies, Stoll continued his argument, intead using words like ‘baloney’.

“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,” he wrote.

“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.”

That’s egg on face if ever we’ve seen it – he couldn’t have got it more wrong. But then he responds to MIT Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte’s prediction that books and newspapers would be bought over the Internet with the retort, “Uh, sure”.

Clifford Stoll

Doc Brown haircut or no, Clifford Stoll’s predictions about the future were wide of the mark. (TED)

We feel for Stoll, we really do. From those quotes, and from other pieces on the now-successful Internet, he really does look like an idiot. But read through the full paper and he actually makes some good points, disregarding his belief the Internet isn’t viable.

It’s when he states that he’s “uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community” that you start to get a feeling for why he was scared of this new and crazy World Wide Web.

“You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading,” he wrote.

That still rings true, highlighted by those gullible friends that everyone knows who take articles on The Onion seriously.

“Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard,” Stoll wrote.

“The cacophany [sic] more resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment [sic], and anonymous threats.”

Well, he’s spot on there. The Internet, for all its lovely quirks, has descended into petty quips and grievances when it comes to social media. Never, I repeat, never start a battle on Twitter. It just results in chaos.

“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?” Stoll continued.

Stoll’s skepticism about computers being better aids than real-life teachers – we’re on board with that one, mate. Virtual educators aren’t going to end in a good time, and it’s getting creepy how many two-year-olds you see playing with smartphones, letting their imaginations rot and missing out on real-world pleasures.

Stoll wan’t enthusiastic on the prospect of buying airline tickets, store sales, and making restaurant reservations online either.

“What’s missing from this electronic wonderland?” Stoll asked. “Human contact.

“Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over a coffee.”

Well, he’s bang-on there.

While he predicted the Internet to fail, he was also expressing a disdain for what a successful World Wide Web could potentially do to our lives. And he’s been pretty spot-on, including his concern over people preferring cybersex to the real thing.

Stoll concludes brilliantly:

“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 interaction are relentlessly devalued.”

So, the idiot in Stoll gets the main call terribly wrong, but the genius in him also just made a whole lot of sense too. He does seem a pretty crazy character though, have a look at his entertaining TED talk filmed in 2006.

You can read his article in its entirety here.

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Comments (1)

    chris m

    Wednesday 2 September 2015

    he looks and sounds like your
    archetypal “mad” scientist

    Reply