629 – Prep Work • 12

The Friday Blog

This week I’ve decided to post an article from the Newsweek. For those of you who haven’t already seen it, it is from February 27, 1995… a mere 15 years ago. Apparently it’s been a productive decade and a half.

(All emphasis is mine — because it’s funny.)

The Internet? Bah!

Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn’t, and will never be, nirvana

By Clifford Stoll | NEWSWEEK

From the magazine issue dated Feb 27, 1995

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. 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, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connections, try again later.”

Won’t the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.

Point and click:

Then there are those pushing computers into schools. We’re told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software.Who needs teachers when you’ve got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames–but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I’ll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life.

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.

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.

STOLL is the author of “Silicon Snake Oil–Second Thoughts on the Information Highway” to be published by Doubleday in April.

51 Responses to 629 – Prep Work • 12

  1. LOL- great article. Good ol Clifford must be feeling pretty stupid nowadays. He was like the Anti-Nostradamus of computer technology, everything he said wouldn’t happen actually DID! Makes me wonder what miricles of science and technology he’s poo-pooing right now. I might run out and buy me some stock in those companies!

    • Anti-Nostradamus. LOL, I like that. My favorite part is really the attitude. Not only is he poo-pooing, he is VERY superior about it, and thinks that anyone not on the same page as he is must be an idiot. I love that.

  2. Well, he’s convinced me. Guess we’ll just have to force everyone to put up with an inferior product, then tell ’em they chose it. *Turns around*. “PLAN B, PEOPLE!!”
    Actually the book thing struck me the most of all. There’s just nothing close to a book and probably won’t be for another century.

  3. There are definitely some processes that ‘just aren’t right’ and probably won’t be for people who like them the old way. As mentioned, Kindle vs real books. What he seemed to miss is that fact that clever people when faced with something that is not quite right but has the potential will work out a way to fix it…

    • I’m reading a novel on my iPhone right now using the “Kindle for iPhone” app, and I love it. It is WAY more enjoyable than I thought it would be, (this first book was an experiment — I was highly skeptical) and I will definitely be doing it again. At the price point, it beats the hell out of buying a paper book, and I have felt zero loss for the much lauded “tactile experience”.

      • I’ve been reading books using Stanza on my iPod Touch. Have you tried anything besides the Kindle reader, and if so, which is your favourite? (PS: I wonder if Kindle for iPhone is restricted to only certain countries, the way the actual Kindle is?)

        • Not yet Rick, but I plan to. I had never read any books on the iPhone before my neighbor recommended the Kindle app. (I would very much guess that all the same restrictions apply.)

  4. You are not the first or even the fifth source to repost this article towards me within the last two weeks….. What popularized it, Boingboing or something?

  5. Yeah, but where is my flying car? It’s 2010 already! I was promised a flying car.

    As for the comic. Finally, some “proper” troll boobies. 😛

  6. “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.”

    This quote is still true today (and probably MORE SO because there is thousands of times more data on the web). But people have learned to adjust. There are some sources that are easier to trust (even if they are wrong — Wikipedia). Some sites have self moderation (Slashdot with their Karma system for example). Search indexing is much better (Wolfram Alpha’s goal is to be able to answer questions, not just pull up results — but I still prefer Google).

    But what the author failed to realize is that web comics would come along as *SAVE* the Internet. Were it not for web comics, this whole Internet fad would have just fizzled up and gone away.

  7. What I find most interesting is not what he got wrong about the future, but what he got wrong about the (then) present. As for the internet being a “wasteland of unfiltered data” – well, that was true then and now, but the rest is just bogus. The date on this article is 1995. By that time, AOL was running strong (as America Online) and you could chat, shop, buy airline tickets, even get subscriptions to several national newspapers – all very easily and all paid for online. At the same time, you could do online banking (if your bank offered it – the credit union where I worked did) and there were several brokerage houses allowing average Joes access to buy/sell stocks online with just a few clicks. He was not only out of touch with what the future would bring, he was out of touch with (then) present reality. National publications writing fluff pieces full of inaccuracies – well, looks like we haven’t come too far after all. =)

  8. RE: the comic
    Why do I have the sneaking suspicion that the sole reason Kevin invented this Questing in Troll Country story-arc was as build up to the “trollop” punchline? 🙄 😆

  9. I wonder if that guy ever fully pulled his foot out of his mouth. Cause he crammed it in there so far he was probably digesting boot leather.

    Lol. Trollop.

    • My guess is that his friends probably quote the article every time they all get together, and he will never, ever live it down.

      That’s what I’d do anyway.

  10. I do have to agree with Cliff on one point. He is correct when he says “no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher,” unfortunately, incompetrnt teachers don’t either.

    • Exactly. IMO, he is wrong for the economic side of the internet because:
      – He totally overlooks human laziness
      – He also overlooks the fact that internet sales, but leaving out the vendor and all, permits cuts on prices, which makes them attractive for the common people.

      However, about the social effects? He is often quite right.

      Safe from dedicated websites where everyone comes with something specific in mind and wants to talk about it (like, a troll porn forum), I’ve never seen a “grand public” website that didn’t, in time, crumble under spam and useless banter. Chat boards being worse.
      The fact that any and all information, even misinformation, is right there with little way to discriminate is true, too. Wikipedia has enough problems with this (Like, don’t you think the “intelligent design” page hasn’t been watched by religious morons wanting to advance their faith as science.)
      The fact that putting a child before a computer amounts to little if there’s not someone to help and teach him. In fact, I remember reading a survey where, surprisingly, a lot of youths were one-trick ponnies with their computers, able to mechanically do some actions like chat/go to facebook, but otherwise having difficulties for computer uses. I even witnessed some of this myself (I part-time work with children and adolescents), having difficulties to teach a teenage girl to do an ï, while, aside from this, she regularly played some flash games on her own.

      • My opinion here is that every new generation has to adapt to and live with the constantly changing human condition, and every passing generation bemoans the loss of the world they grew up with. Further, that passing generation always views this change as a “social deterioration”. In fact, it’s just different. It always has been, and it will continue to be so.

        There are quotes I know of dating back from the sinking of Pompeii saying the exact same things about the emerging world and it’s social degradation as the elders of today’s society say now. Imagine, for a moment if it were really true. If every emerging generation were so much worse than the previous as to be completely unworthy of redemption or respect. How long do you think that would be a sustainable decline? One generation? Two? And yet here we are, fifty thousand years after the first man stood up, walked around, and scratched his ass only to smell his finger and laugh about it making the exact same complaints about the next generation as our forefathers made about us, and theirs about them.

        Have faith. They’ll figure it out. And it’ll be amazing.

        • I’m sorry, I fail to see how that relates to my post (????)
          Although it is true, and fun.

          There’s this one, also: The present man laughs at his ancestors, their ignorance and superstitions. The future man does too.

      • The sales thing is getting easier on the Internet, but everytime a person is cut out of a job they have to find gainful employment somewhere else in the system. If they can’t then they can’t be customers (no money to spend) or even become a complete burden on the other earners (who must pay for that persons support). Lack of customers means less sales for the companies. If there are less sales then either margins must rise (to pay the people you still have) or costs ie staff, must be cut, or the company goes bankrupt.

        Also putting children in front of computers, as well as what Vincent has beautifully said, is passive (it doesn’t teach them to develop an exploring or inquiring mind) and doesn’t teach social interaction skills. One thing that I have noticed about the crowd here in H.O.L.E. is that we seem to have some real folk who can communicate, not just a bunch of folks living in mums basement, or chat room escapists.

        • Yes, this is something that amazes me about the current system: it’s very, very short-term.

          Sure, you can create your ipods and nike in china (or any other cheap-labor country) for, say, 05 dollars, and sell that 50x more in europe and USA. But it only works as long as Europeans and Americans have money to buy it. Which requires jobs you just supressed in favor of china.
          Of course, you could sell your Ipods to chinese… Save that, in order to produce it for 5$, you pay them so little that they can’t afford it.
          So, in medium to long-term, you’re in trouble.

          The intelligent thing to do would be, like Ford (remember? He was some kind of communist, or so it seems in face of today’s managers) did in his time, to pay your employes enough so they can buy things, which would increase your sales. A little exemple? There’s this increasing market in china, which is due to a small fraction of the population that gains enough money to buy. And a small% of chinese means a huge number of people. What if, say, more chinese could buy things? Wouldn’t this increase the market? It stand to reason that it would. At the cost of short-term profit. Which is why they don’t do it.
          Note also that, if you pay chinese more, productions cost increase, which means it may be more valuable to produce in the USA, which means jobs, and thus customers, in the USA. Similar end result.

          Truly, it is madness, and you exposed it very well.

          • In Ford’s case, and he gets a lot of bad propoganda for it, is that he set up a factory on cheap land a considerable distance from any main center (much easier to deal with the neighbours and urban rules if there aren’t any) also it’s much better for property use – cheaper, easier to plan new roads and factory expansion and storage which are big problems with operating factories.
            But that meant a long distance from a labour pool, and all the facilities that a labour pool requires. So he sponsored a whole town to support his factory.
            Wouldn’t you like it if the bank offered you a good job and mortgage discounts?
            Wouldn’t you like a small well employed community where transport prices were subsidised?

            Apparantly not.
            The drones couldn’t understand why they couldn’t have it all for free (or at least wholesale cost price)

          • “Note also that, if you pay chinese more, productions cost increase, which means it may be more valuable to produce in the USA, which means jobs, and thus customers, in the USA. Similar end result.”


            We have a push in New Zealand to raise the minimum legal wage to $15 a hour. All those in favour are either low wage earners and/or have no idea how economies work. In their mind paying the bottom rungs will give them more money to buy necessities. That sounds nice.
            Until you look at what Vincent said.
            Paying a local worker $15/hour means it’s that much more likely their job will be “reassigned” to somewhere cheaper. The more they’re paid, the easier it is to find someone else (or a machine) to do the job. Thus that’s one more person in your local country out of a job. And for those minimum wage jobs that can’t be relocated (face to face eg MacDs, or location dependant eg Cleaning staff) that extra overhead gets added to the total wage bill _AND_ all the highly trained specialist staff get upset that they’re being paid the same or very marginally more than a MacD or Cleaner. And they want more. That pushes up prices.
            The lack of profit from sales to the person whose job got reassigned (or replaced by a machine) pushes up prices.

            And the “butterfly effect”/feedback is that the more the prices go up the less sales there are.
            The less sales there are, the more profit has to be achieved per sale to cover overheads.
            The more overhead per item sold, pushes up prices.

            And at this point if you understand Economics and Chaos Mathematics you’re going to be wanting to go hide under the bed…

            • Well, John Key’s govt (here in New Zealand) is also talking about bringing back a lower minimum wage for under-18s. That would offset the increase in standard minimum wage, by making us a child-labour country. (I’m not sure if I’m joking here…)

            • Hum… Well… I have a question here.

              In the name of mondialisation and global economy, we’re paying average people less and less, with salaries going down, the goal being everyone at a chinese’s salary.
              Fine, I can understand it.
              Still, also in the name of mondialisation and global economy, we’re paying traders, managers and all more and more, with their revenues going up, the goal being everyone at the top american rung.

              There’s something slightly illogical there…

        • Well, that problem is not called “the internet”, that problem is inherent in “capitalism”.
          It started when landowners in England decided to fence the Commons, and when clever people at the dawn of industrialisation invented mechanical looms, which resulted in the first Luddites.

          • Actually that’s not Capitalism, it’s a splinter off it.

            Capitalism allows groups to pool resources in self interest, to achieve accomplishments that would otherwise be out of reach of any of the individuals.

            Other systems have higher useless (read political) overheads and less accountability. Which is why they tend to leak like sieves and wind down pretty quick. In the Capitalist system resources are tracked (assigned ownership) so the losses and leakages become evident (and in a good organisation minimised), also resource streams can be identified (like we have done here).

            A quick look at the wealth of the Buddhist Temples with the love and gold and craft in them to see how well off the people are, and yet can they afford to get internet at home? In their 2 rooms huts that might have 1 hotpoint or a dozen of their lean-to neighbours who don’t even have that. Or go to Eastern Europe and look at some of the old castles, resplandant in marble and artworks, and the clusters of little barren stone cottages that huddle in their shadow. Where did all those resources go? Well they do say that under the old East, at least Everyone had a job to go to (or else…).
            Or we could look at the wonders that Communism or Socialism have brought to the world which would be …. ummm…. Nothing. Certainly not Internet. (unless it suits the states propoganda purposes). You know under Mao every house in China had a TV. Not food but definately a TV or was getting one. And thats why the VCD (and later SVCD) formats were created – so The People would hear The Chairman’s Message.

            But what pushes the inflationary pressure? Investors wanting higher returns? Well they only really want higher than inflation, and competitive, anything else is a (a) bonus, (b) not set by them anyway.
            The primary drive of inflation is … government (through the banking system) and … labour prices (which brings us back to the Internet loop).

            • I think you may be conflating economic systems with governmental systems, mist. (Easy to do, since capitalism seeks to absorb governments.)

              • Give that the local government yobbos are sending me bills for their pet social projects I would say that educationalists tend to like to blur and compartmentalise to their preferred option.

                Theoretically I live in a Democratic country – which is really a Corporate State.
                We vote for leaders (and the vote goes to the leaders, unlike the Pres. vote).
                Again theoretically it’s a Capitalist based economy, which is why like East German 10 years ago we use money/currency. However it’s all considered State owned…especially by the State and their cronies; and we’re just “renters” on permission in their eyes. Which is not Capitialist at all.
                However they (leaders_ are pushing for a Republician State, wonder where they got that idea from. However that would mean that people own things, which twists things back towards a Capitial based system – but that would feature in direct opposition to the Social reforms and Social ideologies they need to get the public to swallow the plan. At the moment it is very good not to have a job in this country, lots of time and subsidised government and social-based services, and boosts to government benefits if your bills are too high. If you have a business or an average job then you get to pay full price and are supposed to come up with the extra cash that the others are overspending by. If you have very high income then you can write off interest and expenses against your taxes and other expenses tend to be affordable.
                But the nasty part is the the Socialist think this is a very good system, despite having nothing built and everything pointing to it being permenant state of affairs that is locked in a resource death spiral.

                • *sigh* @Mist: I see the American propaganda machine still works perfectly. “Socialist” has become the new “communist”.

                  It’s amazing how you managed to completely misunderstand Vincent’s points and turns them around 180° to argue for the exact opposite.

                  Have you ever read Garrett Hardin’s essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968)? Perhaps you should.

        • @mist said: “Also putting children in front of computers … is passive (it doesn’t teach them to develop an exploring or inquiring mind)”

          I’d be interested to have you expand on that statement. It seems to me quite the opposite: computers are fully interactive, and most activities require an inquisitive mind to accomplish. Even browsing the web requires use of Google, figuring out how to format your searches to get the results you want, etc. Televisions and books aren’t interactive at all, and books require ony an imaginative mind, not an inquisitive one.

          • I think this goes back to my “new is bad” argument. In truth, sitting a child down in front of a computer isn’t fundamentally different from sitting them down in a library… except that it’s a lot easier to find the information you’re looking for.

            • I used to get lost in books when looking for stuff for school. So many other interesting topics.

              Wiki-surfing is close but it’s still not the same.

            • Mostly agreed.

              Still, put a child in a library and he’ll do little if he wasn’t already awakened to the pleasure of reading and eventually learning.

              With the added distraction of internet webcomics 😉

          • “computers are fully interactive, and most activities require an inquisitive mind to accomplish. Even browsing the web requires use of Google, figuring out how to format your searches to get the results you want, etc. Televisions and books aren’t interactive at all, and books require ony an imaginative mind, not an inquisitive one.”

            Huh, what? You seem to confuse inquisitiveness with information overload. Inquisitiveness is a quality of mind, not a quality of the information carrier material. The internet does not magically cause curiosity and inquisitiveness. Neither do books, by themselves. But you seem to think “books” equals only fiction? Inquisitiveness and a willingness to learn more and the ability to integrate new information must come FIRST. It’s not: books/internet first, then inquisitiveness. That’s nonsense.

            If all you do is sit and click around the internet all day looking at things you already know, or read the same kind of books every day, you don’t get anything new, and you certainly do not get smarter. Browsing the web does not require a high IQ, sorry.

            You first have to have an interest about the world, and about having your assumptions challenged. You actually have to be taught the ability to learn new things. In the wake of the European PISA school tests, recent studies in Germany have shown that even though the public school system in Germany is free (and university is not free anymore but costs a lot less than in USA) the results are not equal. When you offer the same study opportunities, access to information, courses and syllabus to children from lower-income/working-class households with parents who have lower than average education, and to children from middle-class/upper-class households where the parents have an average or better education and multiple hobbies, the lower-class children do not benefit from the education even if they’re sitting in the same class with the other children. Not because they’re dumber (unless they have fetal alcohol syndrome or don’t even understand the language properly), but because they’ve never learned how to learn, how to integrate information, or to do independent research out of personal curiosity. It’s basically wasted on them, which is sad news. You literally first have to teach them how to develop an interest.

  11. who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?

    I love this line.

    Andrew wanders off humming “The Internet is for porn.”