Technology

Why was Clifford Stoll so wrong?

In the late 1980s and 1990s Clifford Stoll was a best-selling author, recounting tales of tracking down hackers and with an impressive technical knowledge of how to find out who was doing what online. As a pundit though he’s turned out to be rather less good and in particular a 1995 piece of his often does the rounds online because its errors have turned out to be rather amusing:

Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in 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.

Consider today’s online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen. 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.

I too have chuckled at how the future turned out to be include pretty much everything that Stoll mocked in this passage. But what is more interesting to me is why Clifford Stoll turned out to be so wrong. When he wrote those words in 1995, he was no novice in the ways of the internet. What was it he missed?

Lessons from Stoll’s mistakes

Part of the answer is easy: forecasting the future is very difficult and people often get it wrong (as Demos has also found). The rest of the answer tells us something about what is important to how the internet currently operates.

When Stoll wrote, “Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats” he had a point. The internet however is not a static thing; it has instead developed to handle this problem in varying degrees just as the book publishing and book selling industry has ways to handle the fact that there are far too many books for anyone to read or pay much attention to 99.9% of them.

Filtering systems emerged

Names, brands, authors and the like establish reputations – both in book publishing and online – which helps guide people through that overload of choices. There may be hundreds of bloggers writing about political polling in the UK, but Mike Smithson and Anthony Wells have established their reputations. You don’t have to wade through hundreds of bloggers; you can go straight to them.

We’ve also seen the spread of systems that help bring to your attention content which other people think you may find useful. It may be Amazon suggesting titles based on previous purchases or stories coming your way via the likes of Digg or re-tweets from friends with story links. Across them all we have a significant range of ways of finding what we think we may like without having to drown in the morass of undifferentiated content that Stoll’s comment would have required to turn out true.

Again, this is no different from the traditional book industry, with specialist bookshops, best seller lists, window displays and the like – all helping you find the books you are most likely to want.

The rise of social networks

Abuse and anonymity is certainly a problem online, yet even here we often see ways in which people are required to really be who they say they are. Social networks such as Facebook demonstrate this most strikingly, because aside from their own security measures they have the key feature that you can only get the most out of them if you really are who you say you are.

Once again, the essential techniques are not different from those long used in the non-internet world, such as the editors of newspaper letters pages requiring full contact details before they publish a letter. Provide an incentive for non-anonymity and that’s what you get; structure matters to allow anonymity, and then that’s what you also get.

Learn from the parallels

So Clifford Stoll’s main mistake was – at least with the advantage of hindsight – to take problems with the internet and not then seek out parallels in the non-internet world to see how people had already tackled such issues. Those parallels are rarely perfect, but it’s that breadth of vision that brings out clues as to how problems can be overcome.

As a technique, that is one that is still useful today.

Technology does not stay still

Finally, what he also under-estimated was the ability of technology to change and adapt in order to deal with its shortcomings. He complained back in 1995 that, “What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another.”

That has certainly been a common refrain; but that is also why so many online services have developed which help give a more human side to the online world – social networks most notably. Being able to communicate remotely with people does not have to isolate us; it can bring us together – just as the postal service, telegrams and the phone system have.

A current drawback to a system may not be a reason for it to be held back, it may instead be a strong indication about the way it will develop in future. That too is a lesson still useful today.

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