On February 26, 1995, just about twenty years ago, Newsweek published an article by Clifford Stoll called “Why the Internet Won’t Be Nirvana.” In it, Stoll provides a litany of faults to be found in the nascent web. Although there’s a decidedly un-zen tone to the article, Stoll makes some surprisingly accurate predictions—right alongside some laughable ones.
For starters, Stoll writes: “The truth is 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.” Wow. Wrong on all counts. If the Stoll had access to a time machine in 1995, he would’ve been dismayed at what he’d have found in 2015. Every major print newspaper (the ones still around, anyway) has a website, online educational resources from Coursera to EdX proliferate, and, though the pace of change hasn’t reached 5G speeds yet, web-based political analysts like Nate Silver are arguably changing the course of elections in this country.
Stoll also takes an unfortunate stand against e-books, charging that “you can’t take that laptop to the beach.” Well, in addition to the Kindle, the Nook, and other e-readers, ultra-light machines like the MacBook Air and that ubiquitous of all modern technologies—the smartphone—put that technological trip to the beach squarely within the realm of possibility (that explains the grains of sand buried in the creases of our Otterbox phone cases!). As if all that weren’t enough, Stoll also scoffs at the notion that “we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.” Oh, no. SMH!
He goes on to take a misguided dig at “cyberbusiness” and writes off the possibility of ever booking plane tickets or making restaurant reservations online. On top of that, Stoll declares, there’s “no trustworthy way to send money over the Internet.” Wrong again.
LOL moments aside, a few kernels of truth do emerge. Stoll rightly dismisses the idea that brick-and-mortar stores will become obsolete. Furthermore, the terrible democracy of the web means that “every voice is heard,” he writes. “When everyone shouts, few listen.” A quick perusal of your average Facebook feed will undoubtedly reveal a glut of selfies and other unsolicited announcements that back up Stoll’s observation.
Lastly, he ends on a note of caution that we would do well to heed. Human interaction, he declares, cannot be reproduced by a glowing screen: “Computers and networks isolate us from one another.” The “nonplace” of the Internet may feel welcoming at first, but virtual socializing still fails to outdo the real thing.
If Stoll can reach out from the distant past to say so, we should be able to turn our phones off for five minutes to deliver a message the old fashioned way—by word of mouth.