Thursday, March 4, 2010

Whatever happened to that World Wide Web thing?

Someone on a message board for journalists recently posted this old Newsweek column that a blogger unearthed last week. Written in 1995 by astronomer Clifford Stoll, the column decried the hype surrounding the Internet, which was beginning to become a force throughout the world and not just in military circles. Stoll's been slightly ridiculed for some of the predictions in the piece and the overall sentiment.

Journalists were specifically discussing this line:
"Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure... The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper."

Oh, if only. As predictions go, it's always fun to look back at people's wayward prophecies, though anyone who's ever made one surely has some groaners in the closet. But most people from the early 1990s don't have to worry about them being saved in online archives, just waiting for a digital archaeologist to dig it up. In a 1994 NBA preview for my community college newspaper - circulation: I don't know, me, my parents and my professor who doubled as the editor - I argued that Derrick Coleman had surpassed Karl Malone as the premier power forward in the NBA. He'd go down as one of the best to ever play that position, I wrote. I thought it was a well-written piece, the type I might someday pitch to Sports Illustrated when they asked for a resume and five clips. About 15 months later, Coleman graced Sports Illustrated's cover, next to the words: Petulant Prima Donnas Like New Jersey's Derrick Coleman Are Bad News For The NBA. Malone, meanwhile, became the second-leading scorer in NBA history.

I actually agree with many of Stoll's lines, even if he was off about what the ultimate impact of the Internet would be. He talks about how when everyone shouts, no one listens. Still applicable to today's online world. He writes about the dangers of relying too much on technology in the classroom, and this was years before every student carried a laptop into history class.

But best of all, he liberally uses the word bah. It's a great word for a crank, though it's rarely used today because people automatically expect it to be followed by the word humbug. Here it's used in the headline - "The Internet? Bah!" - and in the text: "Who needs teachers when you've got computer-aided education? Bah." The only thing missing was a request for nerds to get off his lawn and take their CompuServe subscriptions with them.

Stoll mocked the idea of people buying their books online. Amazon launched in 1995.

But back to those newspaper predictions. In a way, Stoll was right. It was ludicrous to think people would actually buy newspapers on the Internet. If people did do that, the industry wouldn't be drowning in a sea of layoffs and low morale. Newspapers could still charge for their product without being called out of touch and naive, which is what happens today when any paper floats a plan to make subscribers pay for an online version.

"The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper."

I'm not sure an "online database" is quite the way to describe Google. The online...behemoth has, in many cases, replaced the daily newspaper, often while using the content from the very papers they end up killing.

Newspapers have gotten dinged over the years for not adapting earlier to the Internet. People say they should have seen the online revolution coming and acted accordingly. But newspapers had web sites fairly early in the game, long before blogs ever came into creation. Newspapers began giving their stories away for free long before anyone realized that could potentially be a problem for the print edition. But what the papers couldn't figure out then and haven't to this day is how to make as much money online as they once did with the paper product. There might not be a solution to that problem.

Look how far computers and the online world have come since Stoll submitted his article to Newsweek, a magazine that is also struggling to survive. In September 1995, I used email for the first time. Each time, I wore the same stunned, sort-of-stupid expression that graced the faces of the first people to pick up a telephone and talk to someone on the other end. My cousin Matt received my first emails, only he didn't get the whole messages, as they'd just trickle off the side of the screen, out of view, apparently because I didn't hit the Enter key or I hit it too often. Finally after a week I was able to write an email that he read from start to finish. I can see why Stoll had doubts that same year about the effectiveness of online communication.

Just two years earlier, my work-study job involved working in the computer lab at Worthington. The man who ran the computer lab was one of the nicest people in the world and probably its most disorganized. His office looked like the inside of a mom & pop computer repair store damaged by a pipe bomb. Books and manuals littered the floor, along with broken monitors, dusty keyboards and dismantled hard drives. In theory, I was supposed to help him maintain the lab - sign students in, show them how to use the machines. The lab leader knew he had a problem with his student worker when I stared at the mouse, unable to comprehend what it was or how it worked. In high school we used computers, but everything was done on the keyboard.
He rolled the mouse around. I watched enthralled as the thing - later identified as a cursor - moved around the screen, as if guided by an invisible hand.

My time in the computer lab didn't last long, to the relief of my boss and fellow students. Instead of work study, I began working part-time at the daily newspaper. That's where I wanted to be, then and out of college. Newspapers would be around forever, I figured, and I'd be working for them for the next five decades.

They had a bright future. An online database? Didn't even know what it was. The chance such a thing would eventually deliver mortal wounds to the industry? Unthinkable.

I was better in the computer lab than I was at prophecies.

1 comment:

Mark Pack said...

It's certainly fun to read Clifford Stoll's predictions in the light of what we now know.

I think it's a bit tough on him when people point out the ones he got wrong because of Wikipedia - that really was a radical departure from previous ways of collating information which no-one saw coming in advance.

In other areas though I think his error are (with advantage of hindsight) more surprising, such as his assumption that if the technology isn't well suited for something, then it won't happen - rather than the technology will adapt to be better suited.

That's a point I've expanded on over on my own blog post about Clifford Stoll.