Cliff Stoll Was Not That Wrong

Back in the very early days of the Internet, Cliff Stoll – an astronomer employed as a de facto sysadmin at LBNL – uncovered one of the first cases of cybercrime, documented in the classic book “The Cuckoo’s Egg“. He became an early public face for the Internet when it first went public around 1994, and cemented his reputation as the curmudgeonly Internet contrarian when he published “Silicon Snake Oil” in 1995. A companion piece he wrote in Newsweek about the same time is currently making the rounds again, where it’s being presented as a laughable miss on prognosticating the growth and importance of the Internet.

I know a thing or two about underestimating the Internet in those days (one of my favorite stories is the one where I turned down an opportunity to work at a new company with the ridiculous name of “Yahoo” in 1994 because, and I quote, “I think this whole Internet thing may be a fad.”). Back then, laptops were clunky and slow, desktops not much better, online speeds were laughable and the infrastructure required to bring some of the amazing advances futurists were predicting – telecommuting, digital delivery of entertainment, ubiquitous connectivity – seemed a nigh on impossible challenge to overcome. Fact is, unless you were already deeply embedded in the computer sciences or telecommunications industry, you simply didn’t have insight into all of the variables the Internet boosters were seeing.

Re-reading the Newsweek piece, it does seem on the surface that Stoll was wildly wrong. In 2013, many of us carry computers in our pockets that are orders of magnitude more powerful than the ones that served the first web pages and that are always connected. The high cost of university-level education has lead to an explosion of disruptive online education companies like Udacity and Khan Academy. And, for the first time this year, online shopping is taking greater precedence over in-store shopping thanks largely to to the ease of finding what you want and knowing it will be in stock.

Stoll spends much of the article wringing his hands over how technology will further disconnect us. “Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities,” he wrote. “Computers and networks isolate us from one another.” Social media sprung up in response to that concern and took the world by storm. And, while he’s correct that they’re “a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee”, sites like Facebook and Instagram have allowed families and friends separated by distances maintain a closeness that never could have otherwise happened.

But the backlash against the lack of a human element continues, and I predict it will get worse in 2014 as we cycle through another re-evaluation of just what we have wrought with our technology. Online education is hitting a stumbling block, indicated by a study that shows that, at one popular online education site, only four percent of registrants actually complete the courses they signed up for. The question of the value of a college education is still in hot debate, but I contend that the connections made and experiences had outside the classroom will always trump what you learn from a lecture, and online education will struggle for some time to replicate that.

IBM predicts that the move we’ve seen to online shopping will slow and redirect in some ways as more people opt to shop at locally operated stores. That seems counterintuitive, but for all of the wonders e-commerce has brought us, they still haven’t been able to replicate the feeling one gets browsing physical items in the real world and interacting with real, friendly and knowledgable sales people.

For all of the strides we’ve made in connecting the world, in disrupting stodgy old businesses and revolutionizing the way we live our lives with the Internet, we still seek that human connection. In that sense, Cliff Stoll was right on target. It’s difficult even now to imagine a time when the cold glow of a computer monitor or even the haptic feedback of a wearable device will replace human contact. Not that we won’t keep trying, but it’s one area where I remain skeptical that the panacea the Internet seems to present will ever find an adequate replacement.

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