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That internet thing? It's just a fad

I had to wipe my eyes earlier this week when I discovered a 1995 article from Newsweek magazine headlined "The Internet? Bah!", subtitled: Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn't, and never will be, nirvana.

As we gathered from Gareth "Whiskas" Morgan's moggygate comments this week, people with opinions make the media world go 'round.

Without people spouting strident views our websites and newspapers would be frightfully dull.

But such people, especially those dealing in absolutes, should be aware their views are searchable and might come back to haunt them.

So it is with Clifford Stoll's incredibly short-sighted piece in Newsweek.

'Lacking common sense'
Mr Stoll accuses computer pundits of lacking common sense with their predictions of interactive libraries, multimedia classrooms and commerce and business shifting from offices and malls.

"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 the government works."

If we work backwards, Novopay has certainly changed the way the government pays teachers, there has been a proliferation of online-only courses and you only have to check the share price of media companies APN and Fairfax to realise what the digital age is doing to their newspapers.

In a literal sense, however, Mr Stoll is right: newspapers are still around, as are competent teachers, and governments are still a great source of bureaucratic nonsense and a hole for taxpayer millions.

He digs his hole deeper, however.

His Newsweek article informs us why computers aren't needed in classrooms and why cyberbusiness will never work, because his local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire internet handles in a month.

He flays another forward thinker, one Nicholas Negroponte of MIT, for suggesting consumers will soon be buying books and newspapers straight over the internet.

"Uh, sure," he grumbles.

A poor substitute
By the end, we discover Mr Stoll's underlying theme and his philosophical objection to the internet – why his sentimentality blinded him to the internet's incredible potential.

He writes: "While the internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this non-place 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."

A non-place? Name me a half-decent business without a website.

Devalued? Tell that to my parents, who can now video chat with their grandchildren in Florida.

You could argue Mr Stoll is right about the internet complementing, rather than replacing, real-world education and business but it's hard to defend such self-assured, snobbish pontification.

His one-man hit-squad against the Net continued in 1995 with a radio interview, in which he says: "I think it's [the internet] grossly oversold and within two or three years people will shrug and say, 'Uh yep, it was a fad of the early 90s and now, oh yeah, it still exists but hey, I've got a life to lead and work to do. I don't have time to waste online'."

Ironically, this non-believer owes the digital world.

Mr Stoll rose to prominence by writing a book about his successful pursuit of a computer hacker, Markus Hess, while he was working as a systems administrator at a government laboratory.

Tech predictions gone wrong

A quick trawl of the internet – for this is how one researches these days – reveals a rich tapestry of errant technology predictions.

Well-circulated gaffes include:

"This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication."
Western Union internal memo, 1876

"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."
IBM chairman Thomas Watson, 1943

"I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."
3Com founder and Ethernet inventor Robert Metcalfe, 1995

"Two years from now spam will be solved."
Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, 2004

"I'm dubious that Amazon and many other internet retailers will ever generate the huge profits that their stock prices suggest."
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, 1999

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share."
Microsoft ceo Steve Ballmer, 2007

"ABBA won't last a week."
Radio Avon (Christchurch) boss, Noel Wesney.

The lesson here is probably to identify the vested interests and check the credentials of the commentator.

But back to Mr Stoll.

When his 1995 Newsweek story resurfaced in 2010, a contrite Mr Stoll left a comment explaining he was trying to speak against the tide of futuristic commentary on how the internet will solve all our problems.

"Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler.

"Now, whenever I think I know what's happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff..."

Good advice to us all.

In the final virtual slap across Mr Stoll's face, Newsweek announced late last year it will go completely online after almost 80 years in print.

More by David Williams

Comments and questions

It's funny how often this type of article comes up, and most of the time I attribute it to a slow day at the office so this gets pulled out as fluff. No one knew how the Internet would evolve, and no one predicted cheap high speed Internet or mobile computing would be what it is today, which if not for either the Internet would not be what it is today.

I read Cliff Stoll's books when they came out, and at the time I agreed with him 100% as did many. Hind sight is most definitely 20/20, but foresight is anything but.