Predictions from 1995

Both Matthew Yglesias and Hacker News point to an article by Clifford Stoll in 1995, peddling a pessimistic view of the web future.

On the one hand, Stoll’s piece is full of kind of hilarious negative predictions like:

How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it’s an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can’t tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.


Then there’s cyberbusiness. 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 obsolete. 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.

He also pooh-poohs telecommuting, computers in the classroom, and various other things that have in fact come about.

On the other hand, guys, this was almost 19 years ago.  A generation passed between the point when Stoll made these predictions and when we can say, “Hah, look how pessimistic he is!”  I don’t think that the visionaries that Stoll was responding to were saying, “Hey, we’ll have a decent e-book reader in 2013.”  If we look at a more reasonable time-span, in 2005 — ten years after Stoll’s article! — e-books were basically just as klutzy as they were in 1995.  The Kindle didn’t come around until 2007, and physical books are still going pretty strong here in late 2013.

Shopping online came considerably earlier, and that’s where Stoll is clearly the most wrong.  On the other hand, his comments about education are…  a little cranky, and I think we’d say now that we see important ways in which software tools make the classroom experience better, or promise to in the near future, but lo these 20 years later, there have not been great revolutions in the educational experience of 95%+ of all students.

In 1995, decent web searching that got rid of all the 8th grade essays on the Battle of Trafalgar was still five years out.  It’s not clear to me that the internet has given much of a boost to governance at all, unless we count Wikileaks.  And even telecommuting is still, at best, a hotly debated trend.

I don’t think that’s too bad for predictions in 1995, and I think it would be pretty easy to find many more optimistic predictions that were much less accurate.


One thought on “Predictions from 1995

  1. What I found interesting about Stoll’s argument is that he identified key obstacles that needed to be, and have been, overcome to make the technologies he talks about come to life. For example, a form factor for an eReader we can take to the beach and safe payment over the Internet. Negatives are opportunities.

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