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.
These were the words of Clifford Stoll in his now-famous article Why the Web Won’t be Nirvana, published in 1995, insisting that the internet would never be as big a deal as technology pundits thought. And while the paragraph above may have you cringing at it’s absolute wrongness, Stole was right about a suprising number of things. He correctly infers that the internet, unmoderated as it is, will be a font of conflicting and usually trivial information, and that spending all their time on the internet would cause people to interact less in real life. A great many of his concerns are still repeated today.
“People who trot out Stoll’s 1995 piece as though it’s a flawed prediction of the future haven’t read it carefully. More to the point, they seem to be unaware of the real drawbacks of today’s networked world” said one Michael Hiltzik, a defender of the article, as recently as 2015. “[F]acility with computers isn’t really what makes youngsters successful.”
What Hiltzik doesn’t seem to understand is that a great many of us enjoy our networked world, warts and all. The internet may not have been Nirvana, but I certainly wouldn’t want to back to living without it. A huge number of people make their livelihoods in ways only enabled by the internet. People meet friends and sometimes future spouses over the internet, form communities, forge identities. While Hiltzik scorns the effect of technology on education, millions of students watch educational YouTube videos to get through their homework, or even take classes entirely online. Ironically, Stoll himself has taught millions as a frequent contributor on the YouTube channel Numberphile.
So no, the internet is not Nirvana. It has serious problems, including ones we were warned about by Stoll, but I will argue unabashedly that it has helped more than it has hurt. The internet is a mess, but is our mess, a glorious mess, one that we won’t realistically back away from any more than pollution has caused us to give up on all of industry. Yes, technology has downsides, absolutely! But let’s not throw away the baby with the bathwater here – let’s try to minimize the effect of these downsides without dismissing the benefits.