How the Wrongest Column About the Internet Was Actually Right
Clifford Stoll’s 1995 Newsweek column is the worst thing ever written about the internet. Or is it?
“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.”
In 1995, Clifford Stoll wrote for Newsweek what has been frequently called one of the “worst ever predictions” about the Internet, a column titled Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana. In it, Stoll famously ridiculed the idea that “cyberbusiness” would outstrip the local mall, or that we’d “order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts.” All of it, Stoll wrote, was baloney. In 2010, Stoll admitted that “of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler. Wrong? Yep.”
Generally speaking, Stoll’s dismissals were clearly premature. All the things he figured would never catch on are today commonplace. But while some of the specific predictions Stoll made have grown increasingly inaccurate over the years, his general discomfort with the internet’s vaunted promises has begun to feel more and more prescient, particularly those opening lines. They could have been written today.
“What’s missing from this electronic wonderland?” Stoll asked in 1995. “Human contact.”
This is especially true when it comes to how the internet is trendy and oversold. In the intervening years since Stoll’s piece was published, and particularly over the last half-dozen or so, these aspects of the internet have come to rest at the core of its interactive space, social media. Trends and hyperbole are the driving force behind the social internet, which is itself a driving force behind not only much of the rest of web, but to a large extent, society itself. What’s spoken about online is spoken about offline — and what’s spoken about online is propelled by trending topics, for better or (usually) worse. The tenor and tone of the social platforms contributes to, at best, misunderstandings. At worst, it’s the source of vile and…