Phenomenally Wrong About the Internet

For as long as the internet has been around, there have been people decrying it as without value. This piece by Clifford Stoll in Newsweek from February 27, 1995 is startling to read. In short, Stoll is wrong in just about everything he said about what the internet would be and how it would impact regular peoples’ lives.

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.

What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing? While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace 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.

This is a remarkable snapshot from where critics were 15 years ago. As I said above, basically everything Stoll says is proven wrong by the growth of the internet. Online commerce is a major driver in our economy, from massive companies like Amazon to smaller ones like Zappos to peer-to-peer sales on eBay. Every major company that sells things in storefronts to the public also sells them online. Airlines, hotels, rental car companies sell their services online. Blogs are a major source of written communication. Online publications like Huffington Post and Politico have emerged solely in the digital age. Traditional newspapers and magazines rely heavily on the web for ad revenues. People meet on Facebook, Match, eHarmony, and Craigslist and build incredible relationships, up to and including marriage.

What’s remarkable about Stoll is that while he is incredibly wrong from top to bottom, some of the things he says are still being said by people when talking about how the internet can be used in politics and, in a different way, in union organizing. Prior to Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, the assumption was that people who engaged in politics online were not real people. They weren’t real voters, they didn’t go offline to knock on doors or make donations, all they are is teenagers in their parents’ basement, sucking down Mountain Dew and Cheetos. Of course this isn’t true: people who engage in politics online are often older, highly educated, and make good money. They are social connected influentials who their peers turn to for advice on politics or commercial products. In short, people who engage in politics tend to be exactly the sort of people that campaigns would want to engage with offline anyway. I see similar attitudes in my work in union organizing – there’s often real skepticism that conversations which happen online are meaningful or erroneous doubts that workers are online.

The internet is the greatest advancement in human interaction since the printing press. People who underestimate its power will continue to be proven wrong. That’s not to say the internet is a cure-all and you should believe any person who touts internet triumphalism. Using the internet to build connections, grow business, and share human knowledge takes a tremendous amount of work. But there will always be people who are looking to find ways to use the internet to achieve these goals, which is why Stoll was wrong in 1995 and people like Stoll will be wrong today.

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