I ran across an interesting article today. It was linked from some article on the future of the Internet. The point was that there's no telling what could happen, because our past predictions have often been extremely off the mark, and the example shows just how off the mark one can be. It was written by Clifford Stoll and printed in Newsweek on February 26, 1995. (Link)
Stoll's article basically says that the Internet, at least the Internet of 1995, is not all it's cracked up to be, and predictions of others -- that the Internet will be increasingly useful in education, communication, and business -- are all ridiculous.
At first I was amazed and shocked, but then after I thought about it, it all made sense. The Internet of 1995 was vastly different from what it is now, and there probably was no way to predict what we have now.
That's not to say that some things he writes don't sound silly from our perspective. Consider this paragraph:
"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."
Those of us who know anything about the Internet of 2010 will be thinking, "Yes, well, we have all of that." What does Stoll say?
"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."
While I agree with him that CD-ROMs can't take the place of teachers, daily newspapers have nearly been replaced by online content, and computer networks have been changing the way government works for the past few years.
How easy was it in 1995 to see that type of thing happening, however?
Consider 's online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.
Online message boards and blog comments are still much like this, so I guess some things never change. Moving on to answer the question, however:
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.
In a world where any electronic book comes on a CD and must be read on a computer, of course it's hard to see how any type of electronic publishing system might be economically feasible, especially considering that the laptops in that time were far larger and clunkier than what we have now.
What the Internet hucksters won't tell you is tht 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. You don't know what to ignore and what's worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them—one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, "Too many connectios, try again later."
In a world with a wealth of uncollected, unorganized, unedited information, no reliable search engines, and very unreliable Internet connections, it makes sense that one might not understand how the Internet could be useful in education or in doing research. Also along that line of thought:
Then there are those pushing computers into schools. 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? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames—but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I'll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life.
Training in, funding for, and finding uses for computers and the Internet have been a problem, so I have to agree again with him here. I think if he got anything right, it was his views on uses in education. I agree that it can be useful, but there are many things to overcome before it gets to that point. I think the difference between Stoll's thinking and my own is that I believe it will eventually be useful, while he dismisses it completely. While I can't blame him for being realistic about what the Internet of 1995 could do in 1995, I find that his major flaw is in his misunderstanding of technological progress.
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.
Again, there were next to no business interactions taking place over the Internet in 1995. There was no way to foresee what actually happened. Even during the "dot-com boom" of the late 90's, it would have been difficult to see what the Internet economy of 2010 would be like. There is instant catalog shopping. We do order airline tickets and make restaurant reservations over the network. There are reliable ways of sending money over the Internet. It's amazing to think that this was unforseeable, but it was.
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.
While the wealth of social media is probably not the type of "human contact" that Stoll is referring to here, it's a far cry from "a network chat line." People are able to communicate and connect with each other far better and far faster and in far more ways than ever before. There are actual virtual communities. The frustration which he writes of in the Internet of 1995, which would keep one from even trying to connect, has largely been replaced by user-friendliness and intuitiveness.
This is not to say that we don't have a long way to go, but I think we can learn from the past 15 years and from articles such as this. We should realize that progress is possible, and that the Internet and technology of today will continuously develop. Things that we may look at now and say "baloney" may very well be the commonplace things of tomorrow.