"We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.”
So said 1950s mentalist the Amazing Criswell in the opening scene of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space.
Criswell, as it turns out, did a better job of predicting that future than Clifford Stoll did in a Newsweek technology column currently making the rounds on the Internet. Published on Feb. 27, 1995, what makes “The Internet? Bah!” so interesting now is how accurately it debunks everything that would in fact go on to happen over the course of the following 15 years.
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.
Erm, well, sure. And then there’s 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.
Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in [sic] 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.
Stoll, whose book Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway was published by Doubleday later that year, was always a bit, well, eccentric. (And, based on his TED conference lecture a few years ago, that hasn’t changed.) But he does go on to make a point in the article that has a ring of truth to it:
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?
OK, don’t answer that. But let’s also keep in mind Criswell’s timeless words from beyond the grave: “Remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you, in the future.”