“The Internet? Bah!”

I found a hilarious article the other day in the Newsweek archives…back in 1995, a guy named Clifford Stoll penned an op-ed for Newsweek titled: “The Internet? Bah!” He goes on to talk about all the ways in which the Internet had been overhyped and wasn’t going to turn out to be that big of a deal.

Reading it now, in 2010, is deeply entertaining. Here’s a sampling:

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 government works…

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 Internet. Uh, sure.

This next part is my favorite:

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.

In the author’s defense, the Internet really was pretty bad back in 1995. There was no Google, it was wildly inefficient to search for information, most people didn’t even have e-mail addresses, and there was no online social networking as we know it today. And Stoll wasn’t railing against technology so much as he was debunking the utopian visionaries talking about how The Internet Will Change Everything, and warning against the tendency of technology to isolate people from each other – real human connections are more important than mindless data points in an ocean of information.

But what this article ultimately reminds me of is that a lot of our predictions about the future will often turn out to be wildly wrong. While it’s true that techno-visionaries can be overly optimistic, we shouldn’t discount the ability of technology to change the way we interact with our world – and we shouldn’t underestimate the human potential to adapt and embrace change.

As Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo put it:

Many of the technologies that we now take for granted—online social networks, Web video, and photo libraries—weren’t invented a decade ago and were only in their infancy five years ago. (YouTube celebrated its fifth birthday this month.) In a decade from now, I predict, we’ll be using gadgets and tech tools that nobody has conjured as of 2010.

In the realm of outlandish predictions, I feel more comfortable with the extreme optimists.

The only truly stupid prediction to make about the future is that nothing is going to change and that none of our technology is ever going to get any better.

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