I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community …

When Predictions Don’t Quite Work


A few years ago, I predicted that JavaScript would be finished as it was a terrible language. How wrong could I be? JavaScript is on the top of the hill just now, and can do no wrong. So if we could predict the future, we would all be billionaires, and place bets on things that came true.

Innovation itself, too, can never really be predicted, and that why small companies often do better than large ones (as large ones often play by the book, and don’t take risks). There are too many people who like the status quo, and who cannot quite see how truly disruptive methods could change our worlds.

Over the years, there have been some shocking predictions which seem sensible when they are made, but eventually they seem strange:

  • “The Beatles have no place in showbusiness”. Decca Executive.
  • “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.”, Darryl Zanuck, executive at 20th Century Fox, 1946
  • “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality within ten years.” Alex Lewyt, president of Lewyt vacuum company, 1955
  • “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home”, Ken Olson, DEC.
  • “Apple is already dead.”, CTO Microsoft, 1997.

So let’s hear from Clifford Stoll, and one of the classic articles on the predictions about the Internet. When people talk down new areas for innovation, such as distributed ledgers and privacy preserving methods, look back at Clifford’s comments on the Internet:

But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community — the internet.

Making predictions

Lots of people make predictions about the future, so let’s look at a great article written by Clifford Stoll, the writer of The Cookoo’s Egg, in Newsweek in 1995. He starts with a bold statement saying that the Internet was being oversold as a concept:

After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community — the internet.

Pweh … oversold? You must remember that in 1995 there was no Facebook or Twitter for the masses, so getting on-line was no the easiest thing in the world. We were also tuning our ears to the sounds of 56kbps modems which make the whole experience a challenging one.

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 is 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.

Wow! Strong statements which has been proven to be completely wrong. On-line data has now replaced many of our traditional information sources newspapers … and our public services have been completely transformed by the digital revolution. Currently if a public service isn’t on-line … it seems out-of-place.

There’s a bit of truth when it comes to the observation on providing a platform for all … and in a world free of editors …

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.

Pweh! Perhaps this could be the nearest and the furthest from the mark. The Internet now allows every voice, but the author thought it would be more like CB radio. And perhaps there’s a bit of vision of “When most everyone shouts, few listen”.

So in 1995, the book looked to be safe from the onset of computer networks:

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.

I must admit, I felt like this ten years ago, but not now. I still need books, but my electronic versions are the ones that I now read regularly. The concept of taking an electronic book wherever you wanted also seemed far off:

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.

The first thing that you pack on your holidays is your iPad … and it’s going straight to the beach with you, so that you can get your books and newspapers.

But what about giving everyone a chance to say whatever they want on the Internet?..

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. You don’t know what to ignore and what’s worth reading.

Perhaps correct with some things, but the wasteland has become the most wonderful source of information ever created?

Few too could see that the true bottle neck was the way that things could be found. Surely we needed an index in the same way that a book has:

Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them–one’s a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn’t work and the third is an image of a London monument.

… but Google sorted this one out, and few people have to move past the first few links. Anything appearing on the second search pages, just isn’t coming to be accessed by many people.

And few could see that we could move from 56bps … which was the maximum we could get from our POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) … but along came ADSL to squeeze a bit more … and then fiber …

None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, “ Too many connections, try again later.

But the pipelines soon were widened and the Cloud got its act together.

And surely you just can’t do Governments differently?

Won’t the Internet be useful in governing? 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.

… and that why bulletin boards didn’t work in the from they were created. It’s the reason that most public sector Web sites do not work … they are boring and uninteresting, and are basically a “dump” of information.

Then there are those pushing computers into schools. 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. Sure, kids love video games–but 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.

As a teacher… I must agree with him here :-) … you can’t replace a great teacher! Our kids need great teachers to inspire and support.

And surely there was no way that anyone could trust ordering things on-line:

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?

Ha-ha … this is the foresight of saying that “I think there is a world market for about five computers “ [IBM, 1940] or that “There is no need for more than 640kB of memory” [Bill Gates, 1980s].

Everything promised in the statement is exactly what has happened … one-click shopping … tickets over the network … restaurant reservations … all have come true!

But surely what we are missing on the Internet is more people that will sell us things? …

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.

Ha-ha … and that is just what we need … more salespeople!

Perhaps the most visionary part of the article is a vision of a Facebook-era where we only communicate through computer networks:

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.

Mmm … again this is one that is possibly true, but the Internet also unites us across physical boundaries, and makes the World a smaller place.

No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing?

Mmm. Can’t comment on this one :-)

I often ask students on how long they spend on the Internet … often, in the past, it was an hour or two … but now, for many, it’s “always-on” …

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.

I really love the last line … “aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued”.


Having vision is so important … and don’t just see what is in front of you … see round the problems and see the future! This is the reason that small companies often win over big companies, as the big companies only see the status quo as the way forward … just make it a bit better … where small companies see more clearly the bumps and how they can transform things.

So there are many out there who shoot down new ways of doing things, and for this I always think back to Clifford’s comments:

But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community — the internet.

You can read more here:

ASecuritySite: When Bob Met Alice

This publication brings together interesting articles…

Prof Bill Buchanan OBE

Written by

Professor of Cryptography. Serial innovator. Believer in fairness, justice & freedom. EU Citizen. Auld Reekie native. Old World Breaker. New World Creator.

ASecuritySite: When Bob Met Alice

This publication brings together interesting articles related to cyber security.

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