‘The Internet? Bah!’ Classic off-target essay appeared 20 years ago
This story originally appeared on the 1995 blog. Poynter.org is republishing with permission.
The commentary was published in Newsweek magazine of February 27, 1995, under the headline:
“The Internet? Bah!”
The author was Clifford Stoll, a 44-year-old scientist who said that he had been online two decades. “I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two,” he wrote. “But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community.”
Stoll referred to predictions “that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.”
He wrote that what “Internet hucksters won’t tell you is that 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.”
He added dismissively: “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.”
Stoll’s essay was not entirely without insight, though.
“What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact,” he wrote. “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.”
He was, on that point, kind of correct. But the Internet, of course, can facilitate in-person meetings.
It lives on as a classic of the early Web.
The commentary was a summary of sorts for Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, a curmudgeonly book that Stoll brought out in 1995. It included a jaw-dropping succession of off-the mark predictions and observations.
These were among them:
- “I don’t believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.”
- “I suspect Big Brother won’t have an easy time tracing us. . . . Our privacy will be protected, as it always has been, by simple obscurity and the high cost of uncovering information about us.”
- “What will the electronic book look like? Some sort of miniature laptop computer, I’d guess. We’ll download selections and page through them electronically. Try reading electronic books. They’re awful.”
- “Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.”
- “It’s easy to make fancy home pages on the World Wide Web. But jumping from one document to another baffles me even more than watching someone channel surf. I’m never certain of my location in a twisty maze of cross-references.”
- “Why not send a fax? It’s far more universal than e-mail—we not only find fax machines everywhere, but they can all speak to one another. . . . I find it easier [than e-mail] to just scribble a note on a plain piece of paper and send it over a fax. Or address an envelope, lick a stamp, and mail the letter.”
So why did Stoll so dramatically misjudge the dynamism of the Internet and its potential to produce innovations?
Hard to say: Stoll gave no reply to several entreaties I sent him while I researched the 1995 book.
But clearly, his timing was exquisitely bad. Major change was afoot in the digital world at the time he wrote and he minimized the vitality that defined the then-emergent digital world.
As I discuss in 1995, the Internet and World Wide Web entered mainstream awareness that year. Not everyone in America was online in 1995, but almost everybody had at least heard about the Internet.
The Web in 1995 was still new “but had moved beyond its infancy,” I write, adding:
“Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer, had developed the Web’s fundamental protocols by August 1991, and Mosaic, the first popular graphical Web browser, was available online less than two years later. … By 1995, moreover, computer use had crossed an important threshold: more than half of American adults were using computers at home, in school, or at work. And many new computers then were shipped with modems installed, encouraging access to the online world.”
Within months of Newsweek’s publication of Stoll’s essay, Amazon.com started selling books online. Later in 1995, Larry Paige and Sergey Brin met at Stanford University, the start of a collaboration that gave rise to Google, the search engine that made the Web something less than the “big ocean of unedited data” that Stoll lamented.
To varying degrees, entities that traced their origins to 1995 — including Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, and Match.com — all “embraced the flexibility, versatility, and relative efficiency of the online world. Their founders recognized the Web’s capacity to promote convenience and to foster, if loosely and temporally, a sense of connection among consumers across distances.”
They detected unusual opportunity where Stoll saw hype, trivia, and fad.