The 1995 Blog

1995: The year the future began

Re-reading Clifford Stoll’s 1995 Internet predictions: Bah!

Clifford Stoll’s 1995 newsmagazine critique of the emergent Internet is a digital classic, an off-target artifact that is constantly being rediscovered, and scoffed at, online.

Few essays published in 1995 have been as perversely popular. Or commented on. A year ago, for example, Newsweek, which originally published the commentary, took a red pen to Stoll’s essay in a whimsical if belated edit.

The critique appeared 23 years ago this week beneath the headline, “The Internet? Bah!”

Stoll, a Berkeley astronomer and parttime cybersleuth who said he had been online for years, characterized the emergent digital world as “most trendy and oversold” and dismissed the notion “we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet.”

He likewise scoffed at suggestions “we’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts.”

Stoll’s wayward commentary is a reminder that the Internet was the object of no small suspicion and distrust, and even reverse-hype, in 1995.

The commentary has proven to be rather flexible, though, in that apologists and defenders claim to detect virtue, insight, and telling perspective in Stoll’s words, especially this passage:

“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. … When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

Doesn’t that, defenders tend to ask, sound a lot like social media these days?

It rather does. But Stoll’s observation is more important as a reminder that the Internet has long been loud and cacophonous. It was smaller when it entered mainstream consciousness in the mid-1990s, of course. But it was boisterous.

A Stoll defender popped up the other day. He’s Jonathan Rivett and he asserted in a commentary for the Sydney Morning Herald:

“I think we could all be a bit more like Clifford Stoll.”

He added: “The reason I think we should admire him, apart from the fact he once caught a KGB proto-hacker practically by himself, is that he wasn’t being disingenuous or self-interested with his appraisal [in Newsweek]. He sincerely believed these things. He was wrong, but with true intentions.”

No doubt. But it is seldom recognized that Stoll’s Newsweek essay didn’t stand alone. A measure of self-interest was lurking there.

Its appearance roughly coincided with publication of Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, a cranky, scattershot book in which Stoll lashed the new digital world.

Silicon Snake Oil came out March 1, 1995, and is neither as well-known nor as often rediscovered as the Newsweek essay. But more so than the essay, the book offered a sense of the depth of Stoll’s pessimism about a computerized, online world.

Notably, it contains an assortment of failed predictions and jaw-dropping observations even more astonishing than those he wove into the Newsweek commentary. Stoll, for example, wrote in Silicon Snake Oil:

  • “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.”
  • “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.”
  • “What will the electronic book look like? Some sort of miniature laptop computer, I’d guess. We’ll download selections and page through them electronically. Try reading electronic books. They’re awful.”
  • “When high-bandwidth links allow every home to access animated, talking, holographic computerized encyclopedias, I can’t help thinking that kids still won’t use ’em.”
  • “Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.”
  • “It’s easy to make fancy home pages on the World Wide Web. But jumping from one document to another baffles me even more than watching someone channel surf. I’m never certain of my location in a twisty maze of cross-references.”
  • “Why not send a fax? It’s far more universal than e-mail — we not only find fax machines everywhere, but they can all speak to one another. … I find it easier [than e-mail] to just scribble a note on a plain piece of paper and send it over a fax. Or address an envelope, lick a stamp, and mail the letter.”

Silicon Snake Oil is seldom read these days. It’s disjointed and too dated. Indeed, its message was aging by the time the book was published. Stoll, for example, had little to say about the World Wide Web, which made its popular breakthrough in 1995, what with easy-to-use graphical browsers, increasingly effective content-search engines, and the stunning Wall Street debut of digital upstart Netscape Communications.

But the book is worth a skim, if only to engage the astounding predictions, and to realize the Newsweek commentary was at best a synopsis of Stoll’s views.


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This entry was posted on February 28, 2018 by in 1990s, Early Web, Internet, Popular culture, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , .

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