Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Red Face. Let Me Show You It.

In 1995, Clifford Stoll wrote an article for Newsweek magazine, the gist of which was, "The truth is 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."

He goes on, later in the article to say, '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."'
My GoogleSearch for "date of the battle of waterloo" yields 894,000 hits in 0.29 seconds. The first three include June 18, 1815 in the titles. This is obviously too hard, too hit or miss.

Furthermore, he poo-poos the future of E-business.

"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."

Well, I mentioned yesterday that I was going to spend the day using up leftover Christmas Gift Cards? One of them was for Target. We looked on line first, but we wanted to go to the store and see some of this stuff in person before plunking down our cash. They didn't have any of the things we wanted on the shelves. After going out for lunch, we came home and placed our order online, which qualified us for free shipping and a 15% discount. And we sent money over the Internet. And that essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople? I don't know how many of you have visited a Big-Box store in Brooklyn, but I can assure you that nobody visits those stores here for the quality of their salespeople.

In fairness, Stoll seems to have been right and visionary on a lot of things. He just got this part of things completely wrong. He now sells Klein Bottles online. (If you don't know what those are, just Google it.)


Shawn Powers said...

The problem is that he thought of the Internets as dump trucks, and not a series of tubes. :)

Nathan said...

Its all just plumbing.

Anonymous said...

And for the part this isn't tubes, but radio transmission, there's this: Wi Fi Speed Spray. It might help the poor dude's problems.

Nathan said...

Silly Jeri, that spray was created by No Such Agency. I contains nano-tech that transmits every keystroke you make to their dedicated servers. Another gullible intertoob user.

I got a miniaturized one of
these and I find it keeps my pipes totally clean.

Nathan said...

IT contains. D'oh!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but like many other malicious enterprises out there on the intarweebs, it doesn't harm the kevlar-protected Mac running a Linux-based operating system. I can use the Wi Fi spray with impunity, although the frustrated, agitated nanites do make the dogs sneeze & scratch.

I guess it's time for another dose of Symantec flea, tick, heartwork and nanotech repellent.

Anonymous said...

Heartworm that is. ;)

Jeff Hentosz said...

I remember Clifford Stoll from the MSNBC program The Site waaaay back in the day. He had some crazy hair.

I haven't thought about that show in years. It was hosted by the young, exotic Soledad O'Brien -- rrowrrr -- and was the precursor to TechTV, which has also since gone to that happy farm where Mom said all my old favorite programs went to run and play in the sun.

You know, Nathan, Stoll wasn't wrong about tech overexuberance in 1995. Go to the library and look at some Wired and Fast Company issues from that time. Features on crazy shit like Peapod, the online grocery delivery service, as one example off the top of my head, that was totally going to transform commerce. And all our information and entertainment was going to be delivered in Director projects on CD-ROMs.

Back then I was all excited about my brand new 33MHz Mac with 8MB of RAM and a 500MB hard drive. (Add on a brand new Zip drive with cartridges that could hold 100MB?! Wheee, doggy!)

You're right that Stoll turned out to be a poor soothsayer (but then, Bill Gates at one time thought no one would ever need more than 640K of memory for personal computing), but he was good at trying to remind people not to get carried away investing too much confidence in tech before it's merited.

Nathan said...

Jeff, if you read the article, his attitude seems to be "not gonna happen".

I'm not claiming to be a genius. I showed up at a friend's house back in like 1996 and he had a computer downloading some line at a time. I was like, "that's useless". In the meantime, he was already running around with GPS. WhadooIKnow?

Random Michelle K said...

So what about those of us who have stores with good customer service? Our Target always has lots of sales people, and except for the fact that mail-order-bride-guy started working there, they're always very polite and helpful.

Then again, so are the people at my grocery store.

But the guy who wrote the article definitely qualifies for an EPIC FAIL.

Jim Wright said...

I loved The Cuckoo's Egg, wedged between chapters of serial printers and DECnet connections where recipes for organic strawberry milkshakes and whole grain pancakes. Stoll included chapters on his knitting. He's the perennial hippy Luddite.

The problem with Stoll's predictions where that they were made by a scientist - Stoll was an Astronomer. He was never able to visualize what would happen when the Joe Average got ahold of Al Gore's invention. :)

Jeff Hentosz said...

Also, what you did in 2008, Nathan, venture capitalists in 1995 expected to be common by 1997. I sense that figured into Stoll's opinion as well. So maybe not "epic" fail, but a weird kind of short-sighted far-sightedness fail.

Nathan said...


"Hippy luddite astronomer" strikes me something like "International Arms Dealer / Peace Activist".


To be honest I was thinking of this as ironic and "missed the boat", not "epic fail". And to reiterate, if I'd read the article when it was first published, I'd have been saying, "you tell 'em science-guy".

Then again, I didn't (and still don't) have any credentials.

Jim Wright said...

"International Arms Dealer / Peace Activist"

Yeah, that's how the phrase "Friendly Middle Eastern Country" or "Southern Hospitality" hits me. :)

Don't get me wrong here, I tend to listen to Cliff Stoll, with a grain of salt, but he was one of the first real experts on information warfare (my specialty). I've seen him speak in person several times and his books enjoy a prominent place in my library. But, he tends to talk about how he wishes things were, rather then how they actually are. His viewpoint, while not out and out hostile to technology, is more, well, human orientated. Is that wrong? I'd say no, that's his opinion. But it does limit his projections. When he wrote The Cuckoo's Egg, he was dealing with the old ARPAnet and hacking was in it's infancy. And while I can understand and appreciate his problems getting government, university, and military folks to understand what he was talking about - I think he went into it with the opinion that "the man" was an idiot to begin with.

I thought he kind of went off the deep end with Silicon Snake Oil - especially when he began to talk about the loss of humanity caused by technology. While he was right in some of his basic assumptions, he lost sight of the fact that humans are tool using animals and always have been so. We shape our tools, and they shape us. While there needs to be healthy skepticism when it comes to the promise of any technology, there also is such a thing as too much backward looking to the good old times (that never really existed in the first place).

Ultimately, I think Stoll is stuck on the promise of the 60's Hippy movement - and has forgotten the venereal disease, crime, and filth.