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Why Clifford Stoll Was Wrong About the Internet

March 9, 2015 / Peter Eisengrein

By Pete Eisengrein

This past week marked the 20th anniversary of an article written for Newsweek, by a man named Clifford Stoll, titled “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana”, in which the author states with certainty a number of things that the Internet will never be.

The Internet has become every single one of those things.

In fairness, Stoll could not have predicted things such as high-speed broadband, tablets, and smartphones, or even the web as we know it with rich media content, and social media. Stoll’s predictions were based on the Internet as he knew it: excruciatingly slow modems and Usenet bulletin boards.

That said, Stoll also put a heavy emphasis on edited content and far underestimated the narcissism of modern people where everyone has a voice and an outlet to use it. He wasn’t wrong when he said, “Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophany [sic] more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment [sic], and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.” But that doesn’t prevent people from publishing a half billion Tweets per day. Stoll’s experience was also limited to searching for posts and having to comb through dozens before finding one with a modicum of relevance. He probably never imaged search engines like Google, which can pick the relevant needle from the irrelevant haystack.

And Stoll’s perception of the Internet surely didn’t include the Cloud, where services can not only be used remotely but they can be used from anywhere in the World, including wirelessly and on the go. In 1995 – the infancy of the modern Internet, really – there was no way to imagine configuring virtual servers from a virtual desktop; or managing advanced call centers that can distribute calls to agents anywhere in the world as if they were sitting in the same office! And there was really no way to imagine that new virtual servers could be provisioned while flying at 34,000 feet.

The points that Clifford Stoll made, which I do believe are still relevant are that [1] we still need teachers and always will, though computer-aided learning is real and good teachers know when to use it and when to ignore it; [2] salespeople are still needed to aide in a buying decision, especially for complex purchases, though maybe not for the easier ones, and [3] there is still a need for human contact.

If anything, social media has, in a way, brought us all a little bit closer, even among the cacophony. And in many cases, he was at least partially correct: malls and newspapers still exist side-by-side with e-commerce and online news. Paperbacks sit alongside Kindles and iPads, sometimes on the same table. And indeed, no computer network has changed the way government works.

Hindsight is always 20/20 so it’s easy to look back and say where a prediction fell flat. It takes courage to stand up and publicly gaze in your crystal ball, as Stoll did 20 years ago. The Gates Foundation recently did exactly that and in their annual letter made a bold prediction on what the world will be like in 15 years.

So, what are your predictions for the next 10 or 20 years? Enter them below in the comments section, we’d love to see them!

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