Clifford Stoll was wrong. And partly right, too.

A Newsweek article from 1995 titled, “The Internet? Bah!” and sporting the unfortunate subtitle “Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn’t, and never will be, nirvana” has recently begun making the rounds on the internet. As you can imagine, it’s normally passed along with some comment about how short sighted the author, Clifford Stoll, must have been. “The poor guy,” so the sentiment goes, “how could he have been so blind to what the rest of us could see so clearly?”

But when you read the article, it’s easy to see that some of the problems he addressed were real. Some even continue today. But others… whoa! He couldn’t have been further off the mark. Some examples:

“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.”

That’s a sentence I’m guessing he’d like to have back.

“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.”

Another crow he’s certainly chewing on. Interestingly, it seems that Stoll’s biggest problem in this whole mess was his inability (or unwillingness) to accept that things would change, technology would improve, and the status quo would be ever nudged in the direction of improvement. On the other hand, he was trying to sell a book he’d written called “Silicon Snake Oil – Second Thoughts on the Information Superhighway,” so I think we can at least understand his perspective.

But just before that previous line about books, Stoll offered this:

“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.”

Honestly, to me, that still sounds a lot like today’s world. Just substitute “internet” for Usenet, and you’ll get a feel for blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and much of the other platforms people are using to ‘spread the word.’

He also talks about the loss of human contact, and he’s certainly right about that. There really is no substitute for being face-to-face, but the technology is certainly getting better in this area every day. My kids love talking with their grandparents over video chat, and it’s easy enough that any of them– including the five year olds– can do it on their own.

But there are two paragraphs that really struck me as so far out in left field as to be on another planet. They are:

“Then there’s cyberbusiness. 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.”

Obviously, online shopping is here to stay. Technology has solved the problem of transferring money online and this marketplace will only keep growing. But the internet won’t kill the local mall. Some people like the act of shopping as much or more than the act of buying.

Lastly, he eschews the sea of information as being unedited, uncontrolled, and lacking completeness. Without “editors 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.” Partly true. But discernment has always been a part of communication. Just because someone tells me something doesn’t mean I should believe it.

He then laments the inability to find anything in the haystack:

“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…”

This actually made me laugh. Can you imagine a world without search? Instant information at your fingertips, wherever you are, whenever you need it.

As Clifford likely knows, the Battle of Trafalgar took place on October 21, 1805. It was a naval engagement between the British and the combined fleets of Spain and France. The British fleet was led by Lord Nelson, commanding from his flagship HMS Victory. And it took me about 7 seconds to find out.

For some fun, read Clifford Stoll’s Newsweek article, “The Internet? Bah!”

For even more fun, watch Clifford Stoll talk about …everything… on TED.

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