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The view of the internet, 15 years ago

I was just sent a link to an article from 1995 on how the internet is over-hyped. It’s a fascinating read, not just in terms of the things it gets wrong but also of the ways in which the views expressed were plausible at the time.

The article in question is “The Internet? Bah!” by Clifford Stoll, and appeared in Newsweek on 27 February 1995. For those whose memories of computer culture don’t stretch back this far, Stoll has form. He was a system manager at Lawrence Berkeley laboratory in California during a serious attempt to crack US military computers — one of the first examples of modern cyber-warfare. Rather than shut-out the crackers when he found them, he instead worked alongside a largely uncomprehending law enforcement community to help track them down, and brilliantly tells the story in his book The cuckoo’s egg. He then got concerned about the over-selling of computer technology for his next book, Silicon snake oil. His Newsweek article is in this latter vein.

The crux of Stoll’s argument is that the internet will never replace traditional off-line activities like shopping for books, accessing a newspaper and the like. The internet is simply

…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.

It’s barely worth noting that many of these arguments have been invalidated by events. That’s hardly surprising, and while a technologist of Stoll’s standing should perhaps have been more wary about some of his predictions, the more important point is how the internet evolved to address points that, from a 1995 perspective, seem completely natural.

Stoll’s comments on electronic publishing are perhaps the most interesting:

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.

And, of course, he’s right: who would want to read a book on a 1995 green-screen, or indeed on one of those then fairly new-fangled windowed displays? That’s only changing now, where displays have similar resolution to paper as far as the eye is concerned, and when e-paper displays can be read in direct sunlight — and when one can take an iPad or a Kindle to the beach, albeit rather carefully, and buy books not only straight over the internet but even completely untethered over the cellphone network. A similar argument can be made to take down the article’s discussions about e-shopping for airline tickets and restaurant reservations, e-government and access to information, and so forth.

But the fact remains that Stoll’s analysis of the internet circa 1995 wasn’t too far off the mark. Where did things change? I suspect the clue is in the last paragraph:

What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. … Computers and networks isolate us from one another.

Again, not an unreasonable view in 1995. No-one I can remember really suggested that social networks would flourish, and indeed come to almost define the web and internet in the early 21st century. And that’s rather surprising, given that the first “killer app” for the internet was e-mail, and not (as was expected) scientific data exchange: a social technology rapidly took off in a place where no such socialisation was expected. The surprise is that we were surprised again — and I include myself in that surprise — when the history of the internet clearly showed that it’s users see it as a social enabler as much as, if not more than, as an information source.

Clearly we shouldn’t abandon the sorts of critical comments that Stoll was making, or worry that predictions about technology are almost always overtaken by events we had no idea were coming. But it does mean that whenever we hear comments on the social value of technology and the impact it will have on society — as is happening over internet reading and other technologies at the moment — we should pause and think whether the negatives identified are somehow intrinsic, or whether they rest solely on the systems as currently deployed and conceived. We’re familiar with the idea of a network effect. The strongest network effects are in the abilities of people to re-use and re-purpose technology beyond the bounds conceived of by its inventors. It’s only really surprising when this doesn’t happen.

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