Clifford Stoll wrote about the Internet in 1995. It’s amusing. He completely disses the whole idea.
Some parts of his rant are correct — he says no CD-ROM will replace a good teacher, which is true. There are aspects of the internet that were oversold, often imposing a computer on human skills inappropriately. But as it’s turned out in the last 20 years, there are some things the computer is really good at, and he missed those.
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.
OK, that’s still a problem. I have to give him that one.
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.
I haven’t bought a book printed on paper in years. I read the NY Times and the local Morris paper online. You know, technology has kind of left “discs” in the dust.
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 connections, try again later.”
21 October 1805. It’s the first result of a Google search that took 0.23 seconds. The entire first page of results is a collection of maps, detailed descriptions of the events, and animations and movies of the battle.
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.
Uh, how else do you get airline tickets? The one time I tried to use the travel agency in town, it took them a week to get me an estimate (the person at the desk was on vacation), and I got a better deal just doing it myself. I order cat food and furniture on the internet nowadays.
And books. Which are transmitted nearly instantaneously to my iPad. Which I use to read everywhere.
I don’t miss salespeople at all. Sorry, everyone in retail.
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.
Oh, of course, the standard Old Person’s argument that new modes of communication are far inferior to the old ones. Why, there’s no true bonding quite like the bonding a troop of hunters get while tracking a mammoth, or the thrill of a good drum circle around the campfire.
I have friends (and dedicated enemies!) all around the world thanks to this gadget on my desk. My wife and I were surprised when my daughter told us about her first boyfriend — somebody she’d never met over coffee, but knew only through conversations on the internet. Yes, sometimes it’s nice to meet over coffee, but there also good discussions held virtually. This is not an either/or situation — we can do all. Except, sadly, the mammoth hunting.
No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert.
True. So? We still have live concerts. We just also have iPods and YouTube.
And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?
Given the prevalence of porn on the internet, apparently a fair number of people.
I think Stoll’s big problem in this essay was a bit of self-centeredness: here are these things I really like, and the internet doesn’t replace them as well as I want! Well, that isn’t what new technology does: if successful, it doesn’t necessarily swap out the old way for a new one, but instead adds something entirely novel to our web of interactions.
I should take the reverse attitude. Oh, the evil of coffee shops: they’re going to take away my Twitter and force me talk over coffee!