Clifford Stoll's curmudgeonly 'Why the Internet Will Fail' essay, 1995


86 Responses to “Clifford Stoll's curmudgeonly 'Why the Internet Will Fail' essay, 1995”

  1. Anonymous says:

    I feel a lot of the criticisms in these comments are quite unfounded. Cuckoo’s Egg is one of my favorite books and I re-read it every few years. I still have Silicon Snake Oil in hardback in a closet somewhere, might have to dig it out after seeing this article. Anyway, while some of you find it easy to trash Cliff Stoll now, try to consider things in context, when he actually wrote the book — a lot of issues fall into gray areas.

  2. RevEng says:

    Actually, many of his arguments are still valid. It’s mostly a matter of how you look at it.

    It’s true, the Internet has been a technological revolution. It changed the way we do business, learn, and communicate. But has it eliminated teachers? Hardly. Sure, we may have fewer people in the classroom, but instead of teaching from a classroom, teachers make websites and videos. Has it changed the way government works? Not really. Government is the same as it ever was, though it has a website and an email address now.

    I remember the nay-sayers saying that computers and the internet were going to make us all anti-social. That “virtual friends” were no replacement for “real friends”. But social media has become the next big thing on the internet and our social circles have grown because of it.

    Libraries aren’t gone; they are just online. Newspapers and magazines — well, they aren’t gone yet, but they are quickly being replaced by special-topic blogs and other dedicated websites. And, unlike whatever search engine Stoll used, today’s search engines are quite adept at finding relevant information (despite many greedy companies’ attempts to thwart that).

    Basically, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The internet has changed the world, but in many ways, it’s still the same world, just done differently.

  3. Von Haus says:

    “think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I’ll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life.”
    I’d say at least this part is fairly true, I’m at uni so still in the education system, and even I don’t really remember the countless videos and animations I’ve been shown, while certain teachers have been massively influential.

  4. StRevAlex says:

    This “flip-side to futurism,” while it seems a very quaint relic now, was probably something that we needed more of in the years before the dot-com bubble burst.

  5. straponego says:

    This was actually a common argument back then. All the newspapers, Time, and Newsweek said the Internet would never take off– but then, they had good reason to fear change. John Dvorak was another major anti-Internet troll; I believe Pournelle was too. As was Microsoft; MS did everything it could to smother the Internet in its crib.

    Oddly enough, it’s hard to find any of those articles online.

    I, on the other hand, have unsent letters from 1991 hyping my friends on the net. I told them that eventually everybody will be on it anyway, and you’ll be able to buy every book, album, or whatever in the world at the best price… “Yeah, whatever, you crazy nerd.” I wanted them to get email accounts because I was pretty good at writing letters, but I sucked at getting them mailed. That’s why I still have them. Ah well.

  6. cowmix says:

    Its funny because when I started my ISP in Phoenix back in Jan of ’93 I used to give every new customer a copy of The Cuckoo’s Egg. I just of gave away 1000s of copies of that book.

    Anyway, I read Silicon Snake Oil when it first came out and I just recently reread it. I have to say, he’s definitely cranky in it but he make a ton of great points that hold up today. Over the past few years I’ve donated a ton of time getting computers working in my kid’s school and I have to say I walked away VERY anti-computers in early school experiences.

  7. John Napsterista says:

    Stupefyingly short-sighted and breathtakingly unimaginative. Should forevermore be required inspirational reading for ev’ry wet behind the ears punk kid who’s told something can’t be done by some crusty, learned, credentialed old “expert.”



      It’s always a disappointment when “experts” are unwilling to acknowledge their own potential, or inevitable, obsolescence in the face of the future.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Stoll may have missed the mark back then, but that hasn’t kept him from staying current and fascinating. Here’s a TED talk he gave a while back:

    Worth watching.

  9. Angstrom says:

    I like these incorrect predictions of doom, because they help me through the times when all seems bleak. Whenever I feel that oxygen will inevitably become copyright protected, that government will destroy our societies, or the internet will become a series of disconnected walled gardens … at those times I remember that the internet will never work and the motorcar will never replace the horse and buggy.

  10. davebug says:

    Let’s re-run his “does the Internet work” test:

    You might say Google fixed it.

  11. Patrick Dodds says:

    OK, a bit (!) short sighted, but the CD ROM being no match for a good teacher is always going to be true in certain circumstances.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Some of the arguments still stand (and are still argued over) today, regarding the trustworthiness of a publishing medium with no overarching standards body. Wikipedia edit wars anyone? Librarians in high schools these days specifically have to teach students how to judge the trustworthiness of data found online.

    As for his argument about the Internet’s uselessness for sex, saying “And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?”, clearly the author did not consider the vast population of people who have difficulty getting laid in real life. Not that I’d know anything about that.

    • chgoliz says:

      Anon @ #16 said:

      “Librarians in high schools these days specifically have to teach students how to judge the trustworthiness of data found online.”

      I assure you, this lesson plan is taught starting in grade school.

  13. Art Carnage says:

    I read his Cuckoo’s Egg, back in the day. It was much ado about nothing. It was obvious that he thought the Internet was only fit for the techno-elite in ivory towers, not the hoi polloi. “Silicon Snake Oil” was nothing but a short-sighted screed by a bitter little man, who was afraid he was becoming obsolete, and could do nothing about it.

    • dmoisan says:

      If you read the first Silicon Snake Oil, he admitted getting his argument from Jerry Mander’s “Seven Arguments for the Elimination of Television”. And he asked people to criticize Mander and not him. I wanted to say, “No, Cliff, you wrote it, you stand for it.”

      He wrote a sequel to that book. Neither book has aged very well. If you understand Stoll’s book as a Luddite rant against “new” media–a very common argument–it’s a little more explicable.

      I hated, for instance, his insistence on those cute handwritten handouts and overheads in class; they’re “romantic”. I say they’re hard to read. People will say PowerPoint isn’t much better; I agree but it is a human problem rather than a technological problem.

      I’ve benefited very much from the Internet and modern computer technology and technology in general (without which I would not be seeing to even read and write this.) Stoll was just like Mander and just as irrelevant. Too bad, I loved Cuckoo’s Egg but have been convinced he’s a hypocrite because he benefited from the technology and thought it was bad for everyone else to have it.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I remember watching the movie “The Net” at the time and thinking too myself: the Internet doesn’t look like that. It consists of gray pages full of text and animated under construction signs.

    Hollywood was taking its fanciful liberties again in the film by showing colorful pages with huge images. Pages that would take ages to download on a 14400 baud modem.
    Six months later, the Internet caught up to the Hollywood vision, and then surpassed it.

    With a major advancement being announced and deployed every two weeks at the time, things were moving so fast, it was impossible to make any accurate predictions into the future further than a few weeks.

    And as such, a lot of people were also scared. With no one really at the helm controlling all of this, the Internet was a very disruptive technology that could turn a lot of things on its head for better or worse.

    But now that the internet is spelled with a lower case i, we can all sit back and have a good laugh about it all.

  15. Anonymous says:

    I’ve bought several ACME Klein Bottles. Beautiful topological 3D impression. Pain to dust, though.

    I even bought a jigsaw puzzle for a friends birthday that I used to have math games with. They sent it mostly assembled, so I got to ‘disassemble’ it. I did also get him a completed bottle, to help guide him.

    Even if you have no intention to buy one, the website is hilarious. Google ‘acme klein bottle’.

  16. jafi says:

    Reminds me of a couple of experiences I had in the early 90′s time frame.
    1. A heated argument with my graduate department to not invest in setting up Gopher servers – just go ahead and do Web servers (this was right as Mosaic was being released). I won that one.

    2. A Western Engineering Consortium meeting I was at in the same general time frame.
    A media exec present said the Web was a “fad” that would pass, and only be used by the fringe.

    I offered to make a bet with him for $10,000 that would not be the case. He declined:-) I then pointed out the same had been said about silent movies, radio, movies with sound, and TV. Wish I could remember the guy’s name since he was so far out in the weeds.

  17. mbaren says:

    Oh, I dunno. I read “Silicon Snake Oil”, and I thought it was pretty good. Yep – Stoll turned out to be mistaken about a lot of things, but one my biggest takeaways from that book was the argument that, in general, a “technological” experience such as email will never replace a human, physical experience, like giving someone a hug. He himself also acknowledged, even within that kind of context, the message can sometimes outweight the medium, but his stance was that by-and-large it doesn’t. And I’m not sure he was wrong on that point.

  18. Glenn Fleishman says:

    I read Cliff’s High Tech Heretic from 1999, and it still rings true. You can raise money for computers in schools, but there are perishingly few measures of why we need them. Yes, for business education; but for everything else, teachers aren’t trained to use them well to teach, students don’t learn better or faster, etc.


      If the kids who can’t afford a personal computer don’t become accustomed to using one to do everything all of the time, it would seem that they would be very difficult to employ anywhere doing anything meaningful, for the most part, or at the very least it would be severely limiting. Ignoring this fact while waxing philosophically about the learning process is a good indicator of an idealist who lacks pragmatic sensibilities.

      • das memsen says:

        If needing to be super proficient at computers is an essential skill because society deemed it that way, it may seem “pragmatic” to stick your kid in front of one at 6 weeks of age, but that’s a snake eating it’s own tail- we created the need in our false little world bubble. The true reality is that a planet of kids glued to computer screens and unable to function without a portable supplementary brain at their side is, in the long run, not healthy for anyone for a slew of reasons that should be obvious but apparently aren’t.

        It’s like our industrial revolution- the “obvious” wisdom for a long time now has been that skills that get you far in this modern world are important, and archaic skills like knitting and farming are a waste of time. Now look- a rapidly-dying environment and economic base later, those skills are becoming valuable again, while VCR repairmen don’t know what to do with themselves. I can’t wait till Wall Street runs out of money to squander and can’t be bailed out by anyone.

        I have no intention of raising a kid who only knows how to “learn” by watching a screen and hitting keys. Stubborn old luddite? We’ll see in a few decades.

        • JohnnyOC says:

          “but that’s a snake eating it’s own tail- we created the need in our false little world bubble.”

          You mean the same kind of bubble where we make kids learn how to read, write and do math? Technically that’s also a “false world bubble” and not natural either but is still needed in this day and age (and in the past).

          “The true reality is that a planet of kids glued to computer screens and unable to function without a portable supplementary brain at their side is, in the long run, not healthy for anyone for a slew of reasons that should be obvious but apparently aren’t.”

          I think you are a tad..blowing things out of proportion with that comment. True reality? Really? You mean…before the industrial age? Before agriculture? or when we were hunter gatherers in the ice age and our life expectancy with in the 20′s?

          Also, what’s wrong with supplementation or tools? Have fun trying to get to work without a car, or not using any medical advances in the last 100 years and “keep it natural” if you get a broken leg, or any other medical mishap. I can show you as many ex. as you can that technology itself is enhancing and making kids smarter in a slew of different ways then without it.

          “It’s like our industrial revolution- the “obvious” wisdom for a long time now has been that skills that get you far in this modern world are important, and archaic skills like knitting and farming are a waste of time.”

          Basic skills will always exist and you’re missing the forest for the trees. Go to somewhere like Many of those tutorials help someone, knit a sweater, fix a clogged sink, bake a pie, change a car’s oil. People HUNGER for learning new things, and not necessarily in a tech vein. Tech is just used to disseminate the info faster, easier, cheaper.

          “I have no intention of raising a kid who only knows how to “learn” by watching a screen and hitting keys. Stubborn old luddite? We’ll see in a few decades.”

          I concur. If all you think of technology is “Watching a screen and hitting some keys” I feel pretty sad for you.

          Tech can a be a boon to education but it’s not a panacea. I would also teach a son to fish, fix a car, bake, fight, etc. I’m just not afraid of technology turning my kid into a zombie. ;)

        • arkizzle / Moderator says:

          If needing to be super proficient at computers is an essential skill because society deemed it that way, it may seem “pragmatic” to stick your kid in front of one at 6 weeks of age, but that’s a snake eating it’s own tail – we created the need in our false little world bubble.

          Like reading?

      • Glenn Fleishman says:

        I’m always happy to be misinterpreted!

        Sure, everyone should learn to use to a computer, but that’s distinct from insisting that a computer is a vital part of education, when technology is mostly not used well, and money would be better spent on more teachers and better materials and more real-world experience.

        I’m lucky that my kindergartner is at a school where computers are actually used as a tool (they are taught basics, and then work on projects in which the computer is a component) instead of as a busy-work means onto itself.

  19. jetjocko says:

    Stoll’s essay was part of a special issue of Newsweek dedicated to how awesome this Internet thing was going to be. (I was one of the reporters who worked on it.) The rest of the magazine had a distinctly more optimistic outlook than Stoll….

  20. Pleroma70 says:

    The real point here: Google came to rule the earth because they fixed the crap problem. How easily we forget those days before modern search engines.

  21. audax_axon says:

    I saw “The KGB, the Computer and Me” around 1990 when it came out, I was in junior high school. Was messing around on lots of BBS’s in those days. Super influential on a developing geek consciousness. Only recently read the book, highly recommend to anyone interested in the back-story of computer security.

    seriously, watch Dr. Stoll make sense, internet predictions be damned. There’s a lot more going on here than that…

  22. Jay Rosen says:

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

    Really? You were? When I want to speak against a tide of voices I make sure people hear some of those voices. I use names, quotes, titles (and today, links) so readers can see for themselves: yep, there’s a tide, alright. And so they can check my paraphrase against the originals to see if I am cheating.

    Stoll dispensed with all that. Now he wants us to understand that he acted with sound intent, he just got a lot of things wrong.

    Number of quotes provided from the people whose fanaticism he was denouncing: zero. That’s a very low number.

    Number of titles to books, articles or speeches by the people whose zealotry he was ridiculing: zero. Again, kinda low.

    Number of names indicating whom he might have been talking about: one! (Nicholas Negroponte.) Showing Stoll knows what he should do, but just blew it off the rest of the way.

    Instead of real people we could identify (and who might fight back) Stoll felt brave enough to beat the crap out of…


    “They” (referring to visionaries)

    “Computer pundits”

    “Internet addicts”

    “The Internet hucksters”

    “Those pushing computers into schools.”

    “the fawning techno-burble”

    Plus two instances of the passive construction:

    “We’re told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun” (But we’re not told by whom we’re told this…)

    “We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. (But we’re not told by whom we’re promised this…)

    These are not the habits of a serious critic who wants to engage with people who are wrong. These are the habits of a writer who wants free pass after free pass.

  23. Anonymous says:

    The beautiful thing about how the internet developed is that not only was Stoll almost completely wrong (dead right about the education bit, though: teaching is too much of a holistic art to allow for non-sentient applications), but so were most of the people he was speaking as a counterpoint to. People trying to predict what the internet will or won’t be fifteen years from now will also be just as wrong when 2025 rolls around.

    And as a bit of synchronocity, my reCAPTCHA text? “Days” of “miracles.”

  24. Anonymous says:

    i’ve met cliff – he’s an awesome and excitable guy. he has a big and interesting brain that likes to think and likes to make YOU think. this old article was probably written to make the readers think… and if that’s what’s happening now when we read this old work and its wrong predictions, then he’s accomplished what he set out to do, i think.

    that said, yes… i thought of the “bing” connotation too. ahem.

  25. Anonymous says:

    “www” couldn’t miss – not with big (NGO and other) funding behind it. Read Plato’s The Republic. Nothing has changed.

  26. icky2000 says:

    Unfortunately, this Newsweek essay isn’t a great summary of Stoll’s entire argument (yes, I understand he was responsible for it). Silicon Snake Oil fleshes things out a bit and he was frankly right about almost as much as he was wrong about. If we knew nothing else about the man, we might be tempted to blabber about how horrible he is like Art Carnage’s dumb comments above. However, Stoll rolled with the internet and has remained both interesting and worth reading/listening to. Cucko’s Egg was a simply awesome book (and the Nova documentary is fun too).

  27. Anonymous says:

    Cliff is a commenter here on BB, saw him a couple of days ago on the RF detector demo.

  28. Anonymous says:

    It is worth recalling that there was a boom in Internet and tech-related stocks in 1999-2000 that was followed by a precipitous fall as people realized just how half-baked some of the hopes for the Internet were, mostly for the reasons that Cliff Stoll suggested 1995. The fact that things are somewhat different in 2010 is not surprising.

  29. Brainspore says:

    I remember most of the 90s pretty well but I must have missed the part where they were planning to replace all the teachers with CD-ROMs.

  30. JonStewartMill says:

    I read The_Cuckoo’s_Egg:_Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage years ago. It was an okay read, but I saw nothing that suggested he was a visionary.

  31. Anonymous says:


    “STOLL: “Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. … None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connections, try again later.””
    2010: This is the most attacked statement, but how many times have you had to enter a couple dozen searches to find something? Search is still incredibly flawed – it’s come a long way, and basic facts like that date are much easier to find. But how do we know what’s correct? How do we know what to trust? The semantic web is the best candidate to help fix that, but it’s still in its infancy 15 years later and struggling to gain traction, mired in the same human politics – in some cases, red-taped by the very same humans.”

    This is silly. It is WAY easier to find LOTS of good factual information today on a computer than in a library or other source pre-internet. This is not to say I don’t love libraries, I do. In fact I get exited when I am searching for a rare book and can’t find the proper source online and have to track it down the old fashion way, going through stacks and stacks of books.

    The point isn’t that you can find the date of the battle of Trafalgar today. It’s that THE FIRST LINK YOU COME ACROSS not only has the date, but GRAPHS and FIGURES and the ARRANGEMENTS OF THE SHIPS DURING BATTLE!!

    Now pick something else like that and we’ll have a race. YOU find the information without the internet, and I’LL find it with the internet and we’ll compare. Speed, ACCURACY, completeness, etc. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a topic in which I didn’t wipe the floor with you.

    So not only is Stoll wrong about the internet being worse for this sort of thing, it is EVEN BETTER. On this count you, and he, are dead wrong.

  32. Jonathan Badger says:

    Whenever people tell me that I should read Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”, I remind them that the Clifford Stoll beat Lanier as tech curmudgeon by over a decade. Same old, Same old. Yes, the Internet and associated technology are imperfect and won’t solve everything. But they can sure help.

    • Ambiguity says:

      Whenever people tell me that I should read Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”, I remind them that the Clifford Stoll beat Lanier as tech curmudgeon by over a decade. Same old, Same old. Yes, the Internet and associated technology are imperfect and won’t solve everything. But they can sure help.

      And the fact that the same argumets can be made 15 (or 50, or 100) years later, that despite the fact that we haven’t reached the technological land of milk and honey that has been predicted since Victorian time, the fact every human problem that suppsed to have been fixed by now (attested by every technology book of our childhoods), doesn’t make one stop and pause and wonder at all. Nope, not at all.

      As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, bright shiny future without end!

  33. xsus says:

    Sounds like the MIcrosoft “Bing” advertising campaign.

  34. Flying_Monkey says:

    On my bookshelf I have a 90s collection called ‘Resisting the Virtual Life’, right next to another monograph subtitled ‘Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier.’ Both are amusingly and sometimes breathtakingly, pretentiously, wrong in so many different ways – in retrospect, of course. And it’s oh, so easy to laugh at how superficially wrong they were, and miss all the more interesting ways in which they were both profoundly insightful. And, in social terms, being wrong in an interesting and productive way is also often more helpful to wider learning than being correct in a boring and unproductive one. If people are afraid to be wrong, and worried that they might (shock, horror!) have to change their views later if they are, we’d never get anywhere…

  35. xsus says:

    Sounds like the MIcrosoft “Bing” advertising campaign.

  36. Miss Cellania says:

    Maybe Stoll instigated a ton of progress with this essay. He lists the things the internet was lacking, and I can imagine someone reading that and saying, “Aha! A need I can fulfill!” and then doing it, and sometimes making a ton of money doing it. That’s how Google, PayPal, eBay, Wikipedia, Snopes, etc etc arose.

  37. ill lich says:

    At the time I might’ve agreed with him, few of us could’ve seen what was coming, and most of the predictions about the internet sounded a lot like the promises of “rocket packs” and “cures for world hunger” that we’d been promised since the 50′s. It makes me think: what’s coming next that we can’t see?

  38. CliffStoll says:

    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

    • JohnnyOC says:

      I’d rather be courageous in speaking my thoughts in a public forum and having a chance to be wrong and also have the guts/flexibility to admit it down the road then being meek and not say a thing or be involved with the world at large at all.

      It’s all good. :)

    • thebelgianpanda says:

      I was gonna try to write something insightful or witty, but mostly I just want a tshirt that says:

      “I Roll With Stoll”

    • Anonymous says:

      Cheers, Mr. Stoll! I found it hilarious to read all the comments after your post, only to find that none of them seemed to notice or have read your post!

      Nothing puts a writer’s reputation on the line than to try and predict — on record — the future of technology based on the current day’s technology. Personally, I felt that many of the points you made were valid, based on the current state of the internet. Popular Science Magazine just put their entire catalog for the past 137 years of publication online. It’s a fun read, especially in regards to the predictions of where we would be by the year 2,000.

      I certainly raised an eyebrow at shopping online, unwilling to transmit my credit card number on the basis that it could be read and used. It was about five years after your essay that I felt confident enough in the security methods on the internet to actually make my first purchase via the internet. And today, I even do my banking exclusively online! That’s quite a change from 15 years ago.

      I applaud the bow you have taken online and got a good laugh as you served humble pie! But, I think the biggest joke was on the self-important intellectuals who failed to take notice.

      Keep up the good work!

    • Anonymous says:

      Good stuff, Clifford.

      The irony is, if you’d been right, we’d never have known about it because we’d be unable to see this article 15 years later.

      Just goes to show that being a futurist is friggin’ hard. :)

    • Anonymous says:

      Cliff…you weren’t really that far off, just merely over-reacting to what people were saying was the “way it was gonna be”, which was pretty hard to percieve the way that the internet and computers were at the time. You rasised some really good and well thought-out points. And don’t be mistaken, all the change thats happened in the last 15 years is not necessarily good, just change.
      Thanks and keep doin’ what you do :)

  39. rasellers0 says:

    what’s really obnoxious is that this essay is from 1995, but yet this is almost exactly the logic eschewed by several of my idiot, paleolithic instructors who refuse to allow internet sources on papers, despite the fact that many of the resources needed to properly write these papers cannot be found at the college library, and in any event, it’s much easier nowadays to find relevant, factual information on the internet than in the library.

    • Anonymous says:

      As far as that goes, you need peer-reviewed material written by actual specialists. Most of these that are found on the internet now, are, big surprise!, generally considered valuable enough to create a print copy.

  40. coaxial says:

    I read Silicon Snake Oil back in the day, but I haven’t reread it since, but this contemporaneous essay pretty much sums up the main points.

    His take that the Internet wasn’t/isn’t going to magically improve education and learning (“Computers don’t emit ‘smartness radiation,’” I believe he put.) seems to have held up. Especially given that he traces this “technological silver bullet for education” back a hundred years to dawn of silent films. People learn best from people. They always have.

    And well,, not withstanding, I don’t really see how the government has changed, unless of course how the Great Firewall of China works, and the Iranian government using Facebook, Twitter, and all the other “liberating” technologies to round up and intimidate whole groups of people at once. (Yeah kids. All this fabulous technology can be used by the bad guys too.), so that’s a wash, which mean government hasn’t changed.

    His central thesis that the real world trumps the digital one, still holds.

  41. MadRat says:

    (My original comment was going to be as seen below, but I guess the man just answered it for himself. Oh well, no point in letting a comment go to waste.)

    I remember seeing a TV debate about the Internet, Stoll was a phone-in guest. I imagine this was after his 1995 essay because his argument wasn’t that the Internet was useless or would eventually stall out, but that it was over hyped. His question was, what had the Internet done for us so far? To be honest answer was: not much.

    Remember this was all happening during the dot com boom when there was a frenzy of stock buys in “Internet” companies by people who were hoping to get stock in the next Microsoft. It didn’t seem to matter that those companies hadn’t rented office space or hired employees. During that time all you had to do is announce you were starting a company that would be using a website and suddenly the price of stock in the company you planned to start would go through the roof. As ill lich said, there were a lot of “city of tomorrow” type of predictions about the Internet.

    At the time I saw the debate I thought his argument had merit but was a little pessimistic. But it made me wondered if my excitement over new technology was making me overly optimistic.

  42. nutate says:

    I must’ve read cuckoo’s egg when I was 10 or 11… and I would say that the world wide web was pretty wack in 1995… PageRank hadn’t been published, Wikipedia didn’t exist, etc etc. If anything the pessimistic view was necessary for people to answer those questions and come up with solutions. It was a far more informed view than that of certain “super smart billionaires” who almost completely ignored the internet in certain books ( published in 1995.

    Prescient cynicism.

  43. Kid Geezer says:

    There are two kinds of fool. One says, “This is old and therefore good.”
    And one says, “This is new and therefore better.”

    John Brunner (1934-1995)

    Which is to say there are probably some relevant and correct nuggets to be gained from his book.

  44. Thomasbol says:

    Hello there,

    As this thread is about Cliff Stoll’s book “Silicon Snake Oil”, I have a question about it.

    On the last page of the book, there is a cryptogram which tells you which sections he wrote with what kind of tool. I tried to solve this cryptogram, but I can’t seem to find the correct awnser on the internet.

    Maybe someone can help me with this? Don’t read any further if you have not found it out by yourself, as it could be a huge spoiler (or maybe not…?)

    Could it be: I wrote the stories about the cave and railroad cart and lanzing in longhand. The library and bogometer sections came from my typewriter. The rest was word processed. Today is Halloween and the grackle smiles at the loon.

    Cliff (great respect goes out to you for your books ‘n stuff), maybe you can fill me in on this one?

  45. Yaruki Zero says:

    Predictions are always a messy business, and I can’t think of anyone who’s really done better than 50/50 even being superbly informed on the issues. The future tends to be more unpredictable and awesome than people are willing to believe, but also crappy in the most novel ways.

    Thinking back to what people were saying about the internet before it hit critical mass, I feel like we were sandwiched between the kind of doomsaying this essay represents (and worse) and Nicholas Negroponte’s writings that were nearly utopian in tone. It took a while for the technology and userbase of the internet to grow enough to support stuff like Amazon and eTrade. As a medium for getting data to and from just about anyone in the world it always had the potential to overcome most of the limitations that Mr. Stoll was decrying, most of which were a matter of figuring out the right mixture of technology and social conventions. Sorting signal from noise has always been a necessary skill, but it’s become more important than ever.

    There are certain human elements that the internet can’t replace, though they are perhaps fewer in number than Mr. Stoll believed in 1995, if likely greater in number than Negroponte would have said at that time. Not many people are going to be willing to buy shoes or groceries online, but for a million other things online shopping has thrived. If I buy a DVD at Borders rather than on Amazon, it’s more for the convenience of taking it home and watching it that same day. For other things, like computers themselves, knowledgeable salespeople can be very useful, but savvy customers willing to do some research online are quite capable of doing without them.

    A computer’s ability to replace a human teacher is especially limited, and while there are subjects and tasks for students where computers are now indispensable (and often vastly more efficient compared to what they’ve replaced), their utility in education was probably one of the more overhyped aspects of the internet futurism of the 90s.

  46. says:

    Now pick something else like that and we’ll have a race. YOU find the information without the internet, and I’LL find it with the internet and we’ll compare. Speed, ACCURACY, completeness, etc. I think you’d be hard pressed to find a topic in which I didn’t wipe the floor with you. cheap car insurance for young female drivers

  47. Anonymous says:

    Has anyone else tried to replace teachers with CD-ROMs?

    Yes – the stupider school administrators and the lazier students. Both failed.

  48. Anonymous says:

    The difference is that Clifford Stoll’s message is to remind us to be human; Jaron Lanier’s message is that he’s jealous that no-one is paying him attention any more.

  49. _OM_ says:

    …Heh, heh, heh. I remember Clifford’s essay quite well, and my reply on one of the comp.sci groups that was WWIVnet gated, in which I pointed out quite distinctly that he’d totally blinded himself to the one thing that would make the Internet work, once it got out from under the oppressive fist of academia.

    You guessed it, kiddos. Pr0n. The same thing that keeps usenet alive is what gave the Internet enough leverage to succeed and thrive.

  50. Ugly Canuck says:

    Obviously it’s failed. Otherwise we would all be flushing out our urinals using the finest cognac right now.
    I mean, wouldn’t we? Wasn’t that the promise?

    Where the hell am I, again?

    • arkizzle / Moderator says:

      You’re in my coat-closet and.. Damnit Canuck! you’ve pissed on my loafers.

      You said you’d remember..

  51. Anonymous says:

    To those who say that the internet hasn’t done much for the cause of education — well, have you seen Or iTunes U?

    The internet is the best invention we’ve made for transferring knowledge since the library.

    What keeps me up at night is: how will we preserve and archive important material for furture generations as more and more of our newspapers, books, and magazines move to exclusively digital formats?

  52. Anonymous says:

    He definitely missed a few things, but he made some valid points that are still valid.

    Technophilia and techophobia are just two sides of the same coin. What is needed is balance and reason, and essays of this type at that time helped to provide some of that balance in the public discussion–or at least they tried too (such opinions, then, as now, tend to be marginalized at times).

    Nothing has really changed 15 years later in any fundamental sense, as far as I can tell. We still need a lot more balance to counteract the unthinking enthusiasm that society tends to lavish on technology. I know this is a little sacrilegious to say on BB, but it’s true regardless.

  53. musashi74 says:

    Entertaining essay – Stoll seems pretty cranky.

    Also worth noting, the entirety of the Nova episode documenting Stoll’s ‘Cuckoo’s Egg’ incident is on YouTube (in 6 parts).

    Here’s a link to part 1

  54. ginshirou says:

    STOLL: “Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities.”

    2010: On one hand, we have Second Life and MMOs and so on. Telecommuting took off, at least for the upper classes. On the other, many places (parts of the US, Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa, poverty-stricken parts of Asia) still don’t have the broadband penetration to do much of anything. This did happen, but it’s stratified – the impact isn’t what was predicted by most in 1995 because it got stuck, by and large, getting out of the ivory tower.

    STOLL: “Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems.”

    2010: Stoll thought otherwise, but totally happened, even where broadband hasn’t fully extended.

    STOLL: “And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.”

    2010: Mixed. It has done things to make some governments more transparent, by will or by force – but again, not much.

    STOLL: “Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?”

    2010: Absolutely. Tech pundits are still idiots. They’re arguably stupider on average now that there’s about 20,000 times as many of them. :D

    STOLL: “The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper”

    2010: Wrong, mostly. This one is still in flux – we get much more news from other sources, but his problems with a lack of human filtering and verification have also reared their head. Newspapers and professional journalists are still the primary sources on most news people consume.

    On the flip side, the Internet poked so many holes in the supposed credibility of old media that – well, we can’t really trust anything. It wasn’t as much new media rising up to exceed old media as it was new media taking old media down to the pits and thrashing it.

    STOLL: “No CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher”

    2010: True – but nothing can take the place of a competent teacher, and the Internet has enabled competent teachers to reach more people. Perhaps not as many of the people who need it most – the poor and disenfranchised are still lacking this basic human resource despite the Internet – but it’s technically possible for competent teachers to reach underserved students in ways that weren’t possible then. Money is still the biggest barrier, and that’s pathetic.

    STOLL: “and no computer network will change the way government works”

    2010: It’s changed how some governments react. But how they work? It’s still politics. It’s still PR crossbred with subterfuge. Nothing’s fundamentally changed but the type and level of noise in the discussion, and the way people raise campaign funds – and that might be short-lived in the U.S. if corporations get back into the game without limits.

    STOLL: “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, harassments, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

    2010: Mostly came true. Search engines alleviated some of the pain, but the chaos of comment boards and forums, and the short attention spans of social media, more than overwhelmed what was gained by better searching. And search itself, while better, is still tremendously flawed.

    Sure, anyone can say anything. But it doesn’t fix the fact that stupid people will also believe anything, and repeat it in the echo chamber until they overwhelm rational discussion. And the a la carte nature of the Internet lets people reinforce their beliefs rather than openly challenge them. Not everyone does, sure. But is that a significant improvement over what we had before?

    STOLL: “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 Internet. Uh, sure.”

    2010: eBooks have improved, but again, this is still in flux. We’re only now getting the hardware capable of delivering a book-like experience, and it’s still an acquired taste. Yes, we’re buying books straight over the Internet now – but that didn’t even approach the mainstream until more than 10 years after Stoll’s article. It’s still not common, and the costs still exclude the poor. Owning a vast library of books is still for the most rarified; reading outdated material at struggling libraries is still the way of the poor.

    Negroponte tried to fulfill his prediction and stumbled. Visionaries like him, time and again, were beaten hard to the punch by corporations. The result: DRM, copyfights, three-strikes laws, and on and on and on. This may change soon, but it hasn’t yet.

    STOLL: “What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is that the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data.”

    2010: If anything, he was right but in the wrong direction – now, there are too many editors and critics, with too many biases and too much to gain from shaping the message. Wikipedia, for example, is a massive resource that’s fundamentally flawed by the very element that makes it tremendous – anyone can edit. Yelp is great, except when it’s taken over by blackmailing shysters.

    I can get talked into buying something from one Amazon review and out of it by another. Which one is right? I could go by people who said a review is helpful, but how do I know those people have any knowledge? There’s still no trust mechanism. That hasn’t changed.

    STOLL: “You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading.”

    2010: Search improved this, but we really don’t know this – again, it’s the human element that’s made this problem bearable. Blogs, like BoingBoing, edit the Internet down to its essence. The only aggregators that’ve flourished are human-powered: Digg, Fark, etc. People who can stomach the onslaught without a gatekeeper, even with vastly improved search, and find the good stuff in the muck are few and far inbetween.

    STOLL: “Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. … None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “Too many connections, try again later.””

    2010: This is the most attacked statement, but how many times have you had to enter a couple dozen searches to find something? Search is still incredibly flawed – it’s come a long way, and basic facts like that date are much easier to find. But how do we know what’s correct? How do we know what to trust? The semantic web is the best candidate to help fix that, but it’s still in its infancy 15 years later and struggling to gain traction, mired in the same human politics – in some cases, red-taped by the very same humans.

    And “too many connections, try again later”? How’s that iPhone coverage in New York holding up? Did we fix the problem of sites being slashdotted/boinged/dugg into molten slag? How big a problem is link rot? How many abandoned pages with useful information went down with Geocities? Speed and temporal relevance outran stability and longevity on the Internet a long time ago, and they probably won’t ever catch all the way up.

    STOLL: “Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.”

    2010: Apathy is a problem, but the audience has exploded, and sites like Wikileaks and political bloggers have made the impact of such releases bigger. Which, of course, is why politicians have retreated from releasing things and attack people who do. (See the Australian “hack by URL guessing” accusations recently against a newspaper.) Obama came in promoting transparency, and has delivered to an extent, but it’s still early and questionably sincere.

    On a broader scope, grassroots organization sprouted wings and soared. But has that changed how government works? Judging from what’s happened in the last year, the impact hasn’t been as great as anyone hoped.

    Mixed bag.

    STOLL: “We’re told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software. Who needs teachers when you’ve got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training.”

    2010: Educational software has largely flopped, and teachers still don’t have the training to do much more than present PowerPoints and online quizzes – incremental updates to slides and ditto paper, but not revolution. The biggest advances in education through tech are limited to the most affluent or well-funded programs – significant change isn’t as mainstream or ubiquitous or promised. Still, advances in education are gaining momentum as software has gotten easier and devices more common, especially capable cell phones. OpenCourseware is a godsend that’s mostly untapped, a raw resource waiting for someone to refine it and take into every classroom.

    It can still happen, but it’s barely budged in the 15 years since – certainly not how most pundits predicted in ’95.

    STOLL: “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?”

    2010: Economies of scale, limited markets and availability, lack of trust, few great deals, confusion over taxation, and so on and so on. eBay, Amazon et. al. mostly fixed these problems, and commerce eventually exploded. Then bubbled and burst. Now it’s a complement to retail, with a number of brick-and-mortar (remember when that had the same connotation of near extinction as “newsprint”?) retailers doing enough to survive. The music industry got killed, film crippled, TV scared, but we still have malls. We still have Best Buy. Video rentals morphed into Netflix, but we’re only recently getting into streaming.

    Really, the only physical business fully crushed by the Internet was the music business. The vast, vast majority of us aren’t getting things like groceries automatically delivered online with computers calculating what we consumed, as the optimists of ’95 believed was imminent.

    (I won’t count the exceedingly few arcane *nix scripters with knowledge of Amazon’s API, and even that won’t get you fresh produce.)

    STOLL: “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.”

    2010: I’m going to go against the grain and say this largely still holds. There isn’t a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet. The Internet is an beast of insecurity, and just because people are willing to take a risk by shopping online, and that the risks are much smaller than imagined, that doesn’t mean he’s wrong here. Internet commerce worked in spite of its lack of security. So Stoll wins the battle but loses the war.

    But still, Internet shopping hasn’t finished off retail because it lacks salespeople. There’s tons of reviews but few trustworthy people, online, at the time and point of sale, who can explain something to someone who doesn’t know anything about what they’re shopping for. Retailers might have struggled, but they’ve held significant ground by offering face-to-face interactions with people increasingly frustrated by “interactive phone menus” or conflicting information on websites.

    That advantage will vanish eventually. But 15 years later, I’d still rather walk into a Best Buy to look at a TV and ask basic questions, even if I order it online – and only if the price is better, which it isn’t always. Retail stores benefited just as much from the Internet on their backends as consumers did at the storefront.

    STOLL: “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. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.”

    2010: True. The Internet’s done wonders for connecting us to people, but Facebook is a lovely example of how worthless connections alone are. The payoff in relationships that only exist online isn’t nearly as great as even a single face-to-face meeting between friends. We’re wired this way. It’s going to take at least a few generations for that wiring to flip over.

    STOLL: “No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert.”

    2010: I’ll agree here, but I love concerts. People who hate them can come as close to experiencing them without dealing with them. An improvement? Who knows. Chalk this up to either “expanding audiences” or “artificially preserving antisocial behavior.”

    STOLL: “And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?”

    2010: Quite a few, as it turns out. Glaringly wrong here. If anything, the Internet has done more in the last 10 years to broaden physical sexuality than anything else. Hell, Craigslist alone!

    STOLL: “While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where–in the holy names of Education and Progress–important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.”

    2010: The key is balance – as it is with anything. The Internet is a valuable tool, but Stoll wasn’t arguing against it as a tool. He was arguing against it as a utopia. It’s clearly not, and through that lens, he’s not as wrong as even he may believe.

    Even the subheadline on the article as it was published – omitted from the blog link, which, surprise, sensationalizes it – was “Why cyberspace isn’t, and will never be, nirvana“. Not why it won’t work. Not why it will fail, as the blog incorrectly retitled it. The article was about why it wasn’t, and won’t be, perfect.

    Indeed, his arguments are more prescient than wrong – who else was arguing in 1995 that the Internet itself wasn’t the dawn of the singularity? That virtual wouldn’t overcome physical by 2010? Most people were genuinely buying into the mirrorshades idea of the future in 1995. In 1995, the idea of minidiscs holding replayable memories would be plausible by 1999, along with Los Angeles under martial law – not from hack writers but people lauded today by the same mainstream audiences as cutting-edge visionaries. (“Strange Days,” written by James Cameron, directed by Kathryn Bigelow. Yeah, make Avatar jokes all you want, but consider what the mainstream bought into last year. “District 9″ and “Moon” were blips in comparison. But I digress.)

    Stoll’s core argument – reality will outperform virtual reality every time – not only has persisted, but look at what’s considered cutting edge today: Touch devices. Augmented reality. Most of us have become more interested in using the Internet to enhance reality – to improve how we meet other people and socialize in person – than in inhabiting it as a higher plane of existence. That was the counterargument to Stoll at the time – not that the Internet would simply succeed, but that it would dominate every aspect of our lives.

    It feels like it does, at times. But our best moments, our favorite memories, as a species are still rooted in meatspace. It’s what most of us prefer. It’s what even most of us promote – running, playing, exploring, experiencing, traveling. The Internet is still a tool to do these things, not the destination that supplanted them.

    And Stoll was saying that the Internet would become that – a confused, flawed tool that causes almost as much harm as it does good, as much isolation as progress. A very substantial amount of tangible progress, absolutely, but it’s come with its own problems, and is still clogged in the pipelines of expense and accessibility as every great media revolution before it. And the Internet as 1995 knew it – the open, free Web, Usenet, IRC – has become as vulnerable to being supplanted by something else as television before it.

    Instead of poking fun at Cliff Stoll, we should be pointing to this and lauding it as a rare example of tempered analysis in a time of rampant overconfidence. Curmudgeonly, sure. But he wasn’t hilariously wrong. If anything, he was the rare visionary of that time to get more right than he missed.

    And all of that should really tell you more about the pointlessness of tech punditry than anything of the Internet’s progress.

    PS: You could add or change the link from a blog to the actual publication, which the linked blogger doesn’t do.

    • numcrun says:

      Excellent analysis of the article, thanks.

    • tillwe says:

      I really like this comparison and the conclusion Ginshirou comes to. My own expirence with reading /Silicion Snake Oil/ (back in 1997 or so) was that I found it a bit luddistic/cultural-pessimistic, but also that it worked as a good counterweight to all the “internet will solve all problems, the singularity is near” stuff floating around at that time. Not that bad.

    • Anonymous says:

      Not only is that one of the best comments I have ever seen on boingboing, it is possibly one of the best comments I have ever seen on the Internet. The poster actually uses quotes from the source and discusses them in calm, rational terms. Hooray!

    • Dewi Morgan says:

      Wery well put.

      I often worry when writing long comments whether everyone will just tl;dr them. I should strive to be as readable as you :)

  55. Anonymous says:

    Oh Clifford, I had almost forgotten about you. How does the crow taste?

  56. das memsen says:

    Sure it’s silly now, and we can all laugh at the guy… but equally moronic is the flip side of the scale- i.e. the masses who welcome the internet and technology with open arms, convinced it’s nothing but pure, 100% progress in all directions. I find posts like this one all the time, but where are all the rational, level-headed looks at the negative impact of the internet et al?

    Oh, that’s right, there aren’t any. Long live Twitter.

    • Xenu says:

      I think you’re on the right track here. If you look at all the absurd hype in Wired over the years, this just seems like the flip side of the “futurist” argument.

  57. Anonymous says:

    in google i type “The Battle of Trafalgar” & the 1st hit back clearly states “The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) ”

    i guess we have come along way from ’95

  58. darth_schmoo says:

    Clifford Stoll also wrote a book on computers and the Internet in the classroom, called Silicon Snake Oil. I read it way back when, and thought it made some pretty good points. Now I’m curious to see how it aged.

Leave a Reply