True Stuff: The Internet According to 1995

One of my recurring fascinations is reading pearl-clutching editorials over the menacing march of technological advance (such as the telephone, the printing press, or writing itself). So I loved this 1995 column from Newsweek by astronomer and Klein-bottler Clifford Stoll:

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. 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…

“Why the Web won’t be Nirvana” — Newsweek, February 26, 1995

Stoll is the author of the 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, in which he was wrong about basically everything the Internet turned out to be. To his credit, he seems to have come around in the years that followed…And I wonder how many of those early curmudgeons eventually came around to the telephone, and how many of them railed against the infernal motor-car! to their dying day.

In a way, it seems Stoll’s pessimism wasn’t from a lack of understanding of the technology — he was an early adopter of Usenet and from what I can tell, was born on a BBS via 200 baud modem, or something.

It’s that he was too close — he only saw the structure as it was, and as he knew it; he couldn’t imagine what someone else, without that depth of understanding, could reimagine for it. (Or even if he could imagine great changes, didn’t think them possible, or likely to occur.)

But they did. It’s amazing what one can accomplish if one doesn’t know that what one is attempting is impossible.