Let's Talk About the 1995 NEWSWEEK Piece That Says the Internet Will Fail

What's the most wrong you've ever been?

I mean really wrong. Not, like, getting-the-capital-of-Illinois wrong. Not predicting-the-Mets-to-win-the-World-Series wrong. I am talking wrong wrong, a realm of inaccuracy known not even by Columbus (when he thought he'd reached the Indies) or the guys who thought New Coke was a good idea.

What I'm saying is that there's wrong ... and then there’s Clifford Stoll’s NEWSWEEK essay about the Internet from 1995.

Let's get this over with. Here is a list of things Stoll calls "baloney" on—each and every one of which has a thriving utility in 2010:

  • telecommuting
  • interactive libraries
  • multimedia classrooms
  • electronic town meetings
  • virtual communities
  • taking a computer to the beach
  • getting books and newspapers online
  • e-commerce, online shopping, and e-payments
  • booking airline tickets and restaurant reservations
  • cybersex

Stoll also complains at length that it is nigh on impossible to use this Internet contraption to find the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. The headline—THE INTERNET? BAH!—reads as if Montgomery Burns was working the NEWSWEEK copy desk that night. And so on. You get the idea.

Most Americans are not in the habit of sending around 15-year-old NEWSWEEK columns, but they make an exception for Stoll. This is an essay that will not die—the only thing worse for a writer than an essay that no one remembers. Stoll's "Bah!" lives on in tweets—"a hilarious cane-waving Newsweek article from '95. Can't stop laughing"—and blog posts and never-ending e-mail chains. FW: FW: FW: FW: FW: fwd: fwd: Newsweek on why the internet will fail - bananas!! In March 2008, the piece received 3,663 Diggs. Decca Records didn't get this much heat for passing on the Beatles.

It's getting to be a little much. Our Mark Coatney, who is something of a living rebuttal to Stoll in that he mans NEWSWEEK's Twitter and Tumblr feeds all day, blogged about this last week, after seeing a NEWSWEEK/Internet/1995/morons tweet for the umpteenth time. "While this does crack us up," Coatney wrote, "... in many ways, Cliff Stoll wasn't wrong. The Internet really did suck then, and it really was a huckster’s paradise. But the fatal flaw in his argument was his assumption that it was never going to get any better." Today, undoubtedly, we all have beliefs about the future of the digital age that would seem hilarious when viewed from 2025.

Now, what does Stoll have to say about all of this? Oh, right, I can use the Internet to find out. The answer is that he is being a good sport. He saw his folly highlighted on Boing Boing last week, and contributed this comment:

“Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler.

Wrong? Yep.

At the time, I was trying to speak against the tide of futuristic commentary on how The Internet Will Solve Our Problems.

Gives me pause. Most of my screwups have had limited publicity: Forgetting my lines in my 4th grade play. Misidentifying a Gilbert and Sullivan song while suddenly drafted to fill in as announcer on a classical radio station. Wasting a week hunting for planets interior to Mercury’s orbit using an infrared system with a noise level so high that it couldn’t possibly detect ‘em. Heck—trying to dry my sneakers in a microwave oven (a quarter century later, there’s still a smudge on the kitchen ceiling)

And, as I’ve laughed at others’ foibles, I think back to some of my own cringeworthy contributions.

Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff …

Warm cheers to all,

—Cliff Stoll on a rainy Friday afternoon in Oakland”

If Cliff Stoll was an Internet curmudgeon, then he has aged into a magnanimous one. A class act, on the Web? In 1995, no one could have predicted that.