The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

22 years after, ‘Newsweek’ takes red pen to flawed Internet column

It’s been 22 years since Newsweek magazine published one of the most astonishingly off-target commentaries about the Internet and the early Web.

The commentary was so strikingly wrong-headed that it has become a classic of sorts, one that is often rediscovered online, allowing it to gain fresh traction and circulation on social media platforms such as Twitter.

It was published in the Newsweek issue dated February 27, 1995, and carried the headline:

The Internet? Bah!

The commentary’s author, an astrophysicist and computer maven named Clifford Stoll, confidently presented a variety of predictions about the then-unfolding digital landscape. Most of them proved memorably wrong.

Stoll (TED.com)

“Uh, sure,” Stoll wrote of forecasts “that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet.”

He wrote dismissively about cyberbusiness, stating: “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.”

He declared that “Internet hucksters won’t tell you is that 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.”

As it has on occasion in the years since 1995, Newsweek revisited the commentary the other day, and took a red pen to Stoll’s predictions.

It made for an amusing, if snarky, look back (see image, nearby).

To Stoll’s assertion that “you can’t tote that laptop to the beach,” Newsweek answered in red capital letters, “WRONG.”

To Stoll’s scoffing about “a future of telecommuting workers,” Newsweek declared, “This fully happened.”

“With the exception of a couple [of] fair points and insights about the internet’s lack of human contact (true) and how it begets social isolation (semi-true), the article,” Newsweek said, “is very, very, very wrong.”

Stoll’s commentary appeared in Newsweek a few weeks before publication of his book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, which offered even more assured predictions that likewise proved stunningly off-base. Here are some of them, which I quoted in my book, 1995: The Year the Future Began:

  • I don’t believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.
  • Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.
  • I suspect Big Brother won’t have an easy time tracing us. . . . Our privacy will be protected, as it always has been, by simple obscurity and the high cost of uncovering information about us.

Stoll’s predictions and observations, I wrote in 1995, “can be scoffed at as naive and short-sighted. That is easy to do. They also can be recognized as a baseline for understanding what a robust place cyberspace was becoming” 22 years ago. It wasn’t long, even then, before Stoll’s complaints and predictions were crumbling.

During the decisive year of 1995, for example, Amazon.com opened for business, selling books online.

By the end of the year, Alaska Airlines had begun selling tickets online.

Online searching became less arduous in 1995, with the advent of Alta Vista, the go-to search engine of the early Web. The Internet was becoming something less of “a wasteland of unfiltered data.”

I also noted in 1995 that Stoll eventually — though not prominently — acknowledged the shortcomings of his predictions. In 2010, he wrote in a discussion forum at BoingBoing.net:

“Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler. Wrong? Yep.”

He added:

“Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff . . .”

WJC

More from The 1995 Blog:

%d bloggers like this: