I’m up too early on a Saturday and morning and came across this article from Newsweek Magazine in 1995 entitled, “The internet? Bah!” floating around on Hacker News. And I read it expecting to have the same reaction that I imagine most are having – oh that clueless old media reporter, his skepticism was so quaint!
But as I actually read the article, my reaction was quite different. There’s still a surprising amount of unfulfilled promise attached to the internet and our digital lives. If we look at the article, written by Clifford Stoll (who wrote Silicon Snake Oil, which I actually read back in 1996), he gets a few things dramatically wrong and let’s dispense with those.
First off, he wasn’t able to predict Google and the extent to which search would improve.
Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them–one’s a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn’t work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connections, try again later.”
Ok, so he missed that. Badly. Both the rise of Google and the increasing richness of the data available on the web has made web search the most effective and time efficient way to gather information the world has ever seen. Stoll’s concerns on this front seem myopic and silly in retrospect (which is, of course, why the article is circulating around on HN).
What else? He also missed ecommerce.
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.
The line about the mall is almost exactly what you hope to hear if you’re pursuing an Innovator’s Dilemma-type strategy. The Internet as a whole pursued one throughout the early and mid 90s. As Chris Dixon would say – the old economy (and its media) thought the Internet was a toy. Flash forward fifteen years and the Internet does all the things Stoll highlights. Instant catalog shopping? Amazon is orders of magnitude bigger than any catalog. Airline tickets? I’m pretty sure we can do that now. Restaurant reservations? Yeah, that’s manageable. Negotiate sales contracts? Yes, although most people don’t negotiate sales contracts in the offline world either. Stores haven’t become obsolete, but I don’t think that was ever the prediction (or the goal) for the Internet. Today ecommerce is about 6% of all US shopping, which is an enormous number in the tens of billions of dollars.
So why did I think this article was valid, at least in part? Because Stoll led with this:
Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.
He’s right, Internet visionaries promised all of those things. And to my eye none of those things have really happened.
- Telecommuting? It happens and is happening, but the notion of digital freedom accompanying high-speed communications is still largely an idea. And we’ve learned that while remote labor makes sense in a lot of cases (disclosure: one of RRE’s portfolio companies is solving problems around exactly this area), we’ve also learned that in many other cases being physically proximate is still very important.
- Interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms? My wife teaches in the Bronx and while they make some use of technology, I think that at their school and at US schools in general, “Internet Visionaries” circa 1995 would be deeply disappointed at how little technology has truly changed our schools. School-age children mostly play games and post pictures of themselves using all the technology we’ve built over the last twenty years.
- And interactive government. This is perhaps the greatest disappointment and the element to which I reacted the most strongly. While Obama has been more interested in using the Internet than any of his predecessors, how many can actually say with a straight face that the operation of our government is meaningfully better because of technology? Governance is done the same way as always, and that’s to say poorly, with low transparency and general unawareness by the population.
What does all this mean? Well, some like to say that thirty minutes is a lifetime in “Internet Time” and if that’s true then the fifteen years since, “The Internet? Bah!” is an age. And in that age I think the internet has fulfilled all its commercial promise and comparatively little of its social promise. Search, ecommerce, financial services, marketing – all of these are dramatically improved since 1995. But education and government? Comparatively little.
Where I’m hopeful is that the rise of the social web generates real solutions to a lot of these problems. As recently as three or four years ago the Web was essentially a one-to-one or one-to-many medium. But the rise of the social web – social nets like Facebook, messaging platforms like Twitter and new approaches to conversation like Hot Potato – offers the promise of genuine collective action online. These services might actually enable the type of real structural evolution to our citizenship that the original Internet generation foretold. But I think a tremendous amount still has to happen.
Ultimately, it was a fun read and got me thinking a lot about how things are so much better than they were in 1995, and also how they haven’t changed as much as we hoped. Not bad for 6:00 AM on a Saturday.