Sunday, April 29, 2012

Why Clifford Stoll is RIGHT about the internet

Clifford Stoll is a kook.  And I'm sure he'd be the first to admit it.  But he was right about the internet.

"No, he's wrong," you say,  "He even admitted he was wrong in a comment on BoingBoing."

No, I think he was being kind.  Like when someone really really stupid manages to accomplish some remedial task and we say, "Good.  Good, for you."  What he really tells us is here, the saddest part about how our lives have been influenced by the internet, "important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued."

You can laugh at his naivete, but you can't deny that the internet has devalued our interactions.  And I'm assuming that you've ever "Like"d  something or tweeted your feelings in 140 characters.

But technologically, Stoll was way, way off.  Everything Stoll claimed computers couldn't be, computers have become. They are small; they are fast; they store more data and perform more complex and esoteric functions than he could have conceived.

In 1995, Stoll wrote that
  • 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.
source: Newsweek

And he was wrong on all 3 counts.

But that's only because technology gives the appearance of his wrongness: replacement never truly happened .  Ask any librarian if online databases are easier to use than newspapers and you won't get a clear consensus. And teachers use technology to teach, but the teacher is still essential to the learning process.  And government is tied to computers in ways we could never understand, but government progress still moves at the traditional bureaucratic glacial pace.

I think how Stoll could see what we can't is based on his perspective on the evolution of the internet.  He is someone old enough to see it from outside.  He could compare it to a different world and didn't like what he saw.  But fewer of us know his world.  We've been deep in the internet for almost 20 years.  For many, the internet can't be removed from real life. But someone his age would have seen the doorways and windows to the internet from outside, whereas most of us have never stood in his place.

Stoll predicted wrongly because he underestimated people and how people actually wanted all that "unfiltered data."  People became the filter.  Wikipedia is one result.  

I like to use the movie The Matrix to think about how we view the internet.  Neo was born into the matrix and didn't know there was something outside of it. And when he learned, it changed him.  But Cypher knew that the matrix wasn't real, and he didn't care.  To him, the real world sucked.

And in our world, computers have replaced human interaction.  Virtual people have replaced people.

And this is absolutely where Stoll predicted correctly.  He concluded in his Newsweek article, "What's missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact."  He could never have imagined that in the 10 years following those words that we have successfully replaced physical contact with emotional contact and that emotional contact would be derived from tweets and pokes and updates and texts.

Those people Stoll spoke to in 1995 are dead.  If I had the time, I might argue that they died in 2001 when the people of the world decided they were too afraid to go outside.  And I don't I'd be wrong.  One day, some other weirdo will prove that 9/11 influenced the iPhone.

Apart from technology, mobile devices, wifi, broadband internet and HD video, everything Stoll said is true:
  •  "Cybershopping" is dangerous. That hasn't changed. Probably never will.
  • We continue to buy more and more "expensive toys"while convincing ourselves they will change our lives.
  • And sifting through data on the Internet is still difficult just as it was 2 years before Google.

All true. But also untrue.  The internet has changed us.  We are all willing to do things online in 2012 that not one of you would have imagined you would do in 1992 (the first year I went online).  Simply, you play computer games.  You play games with people you've never seen or met.  The movie WarGames was from 1983 and even 10 years later, computer games were still only for nerds.  Now you find attractive people tapping away at games on their phones, beautiful people, people who should be fucking each other!  What happened to us?

We have been changed by the internet.  You laugh at Stoll, but you are not the same species.  He is analog and you are digital.

So where is this leading? There is discussion today about whether the internet has anything new left to offer.  As if innovation has stagnated behind the Apple-Amazon-Google-Facebook turf wars.  These companies seem to want to keep their users locked into proprietary domains.  From where will innovation come when these innovators won't share?

But maybe that's where the next generation of innovation will happen -- in breaking down those walls.

Yet for his goofs, Stoll gave me one of the wisest pieces of wisdom, ever.  On one television program, he espoused having two computers, one for online and one that never touches an outside network. Because that was the only way to guarantee that your data would be safe. One day, you'll wish you'd listened to him.

1 comment:

  1. funny...the guy who turned me on to cyberspace (pre-web in 1991) also turned me on to Cliff Stoll.

    you said..."in our world, computers have replaced human interaction. Virtual people have replaced people." I'm not sure this is a bad thing...since virtual people can turn real, with amazing results...2 of my 4 partners/lifemates are people I first met on usenet and we have been living together for anywhere from 3 to 15 years.