Fifteen years isn’t a long time. Most of us can remember what we were doing 15 years ago. Often it’s the same thing we are doing now, job-wise. Sure our kids were just kids, not adults. But 15 years isn’t a historical epoch. At least not when you are living through it. But the fact is we have gone through a revolution in that period that will seem as profound as the 50 years from 1450 to 1500, the half century after Gutenberg and the invention of moveable type.
It’s hard to remember what the cyberworld was like a short 15 years ago, but thanks to the internet we can retrieve — instantly — what it looked like to someone who was intimately familiar with it, computer geek and curmudgeon Clifford Stoll. I remember seeing him interviewed on TV a number of times when his book, Silicon Snake Oil came out, and he was quite convincing. Wild hair, wild enthusiasm for his own arguments, confident pronouncements that the whole internet thing was a hoax. Boingboing just linked to his 1995 essay in Newsweek that is so full of delicious irony it’s all I can do just to put up the whole thing. But that wouldn’t be fair use, would it. After all, it would be stealing because then you wouldn’t have any incentive to subscribe to the 1995 Newsweek. So here are some snippets:
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.
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.
Won?t the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.
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. (From Clifford Stoll, Why the Internet will Fail, Newsweek, 1995)
Read the whole thing. I’m not ridiculing it. What Stoll said made a certain amount of sense then. But it was all dead wrong. The internet is a world changing technology, for better of for worse. It’s hard to see a revolution when you are living through it, but consider this. There is no more “power of the press,” if taken literally to mean the power of the person who owns the printing press. I am now an author, a publisher and a distributor. I have more unique readers each day than the average subspecialty scientific journal had all year in 1995. I am lusting after an iPad so I can read textbooks and newspapers and magazines on it. I buy as much or more online as in stores. I even buy groceries online and have them delivered. I communicate mostly online, preferring it because it is asynchronous: the other person and I don’t have to do it at the same time. Yet I still have as many social and personal relationships of the face to face kind as I have ever had, supplemented by a global community of readers, commenters and friends.
Clifford Stoll is a smart, knowledgeable guy about computers. It’s a cautionary tale and a glimpse of a world that is now gone. For good.