Why the Internet Will Fail
Newsweek presents a devastating essay by Clifford Stoll explaining why this newfangled Internet thing is unlikely to catch on.
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.
Consider today’s online world. 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. When most everyone shouts, few listen. 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.
What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is tht 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.
It goes on like this for quite some time but you get the drift. In fairness, Stoll’s piece came out fifteen years ago, yesterday. The Internet evolved considerably differently than he expected.
At any rate, my point isn’t to make fun at Stoll for his inability to forecast the future. As has oft been said, predictions are difficult — especially about the future. No, what’s interesting is that the argument hasn’t really evolved all that much in the intervening time even though the Internet certainly has.
While telecommuting and virtual classrooms are realities, they’re still viewed suspiciously. Many of us could do our jobs almost entirely online but managers are exceedingly reluctant to cede the control that comes with being able to eyeball employees to make sure they’re working. And virtual classrooms are interesting in theory but ridiculously hard to manage.
The cacophany of voices has grown, tremendously. There were no blogs as we know them in 1995, much less Twitter, Facebook, and all the rest. And people who get paid to write still scoff at the competition from amateurs.
Online news has indeed become a major competitor for newspapers although, ironically, it’s mostly the newspapers themselves doing the competing. And they’re killing themselves. It’s true that Twitter and other technologies have been harnessed for citizen reporting of natural disasters, protest movements, and the like. But we’re not seeing the Army of Davids replacing most of the actual reporting function of professional journalism. Commentary, yes; reporting, not so much.
Reading is gradually going digital, although in the direction of booklike objects like the Kindle.
On the other hand, Stoll’s predictions about online shopping have proven wildly inaccurate. Amazon and other outlets have made a huge dent in brick and mortar sales, helping kill some major chains. It turns out that salespeople aren’t essential after all.
Stoll’s concluding thought still rings true:
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. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing? While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where–in the holy names of Education and Progress–important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.
The online world has become a substitute, in some ways, for living in the real world. But, mostly, for people who wouldn’t have done much of the latter, anyway. For the rest of us, it’s become a positive adjunct. I’ve got plenty of friends from around the world that I either “met” online and know only from the Internet but also keep in touch with real life friends who no longer live in the same town via online communication.