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A Generation On: Clifford Stoll’s 1995 Essay on the Internet

Clifford Stoll’s 1995 Newsweek piece “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana” has been the butt of many a joke over the years, but not because of its title. Had Stoll limited himself to merely arguing what his title claims we might well remember him as having been clearer-eyed than his contemporaries. Had he somewhat more ambititously argued that the advent of this technology would not in itself translate to not merely nirvana, but not even utopia, we might have accorded him yet greater plaudits. And had he, in more nuanced fashion, argued that some of the much-hyped developments might not come for a long time, if ever, he would also have been right, as we are all too aware looking at exactly some of those things of which he was so dismissive, like telecommuting or the substitution of online for in-person education, or some radical advance for democracy.

However, he was dismissive of the whole thing, not only in the very near term, but, it could seem, any time frame meaningful to people of the 1990s, and on very particular grounds that seem to me more telling than the prediction itself. While paying the limits of the technology as it stood at the time some heed (noting the sheer messiness of what was online, or the awkwardness of reading a CD-ROM while on a ‘90s-era desktop), he did not stress the limits of the technology as it was then, and likely to remain for some time, even though he could have very easily done so. (What we are in 2022 vaguely talking about as the “Metaverse” was, at the time, widely portrayed as imminent amid the then-insane hyping of Virtual Reality — while what we really had was pay-by-the-hour dial-up in a time in which Amazon had scarcely been founded, and Google, Facebook, Netflix were far from realization.) Nor did Stoll acknowledge the hard facts of economics and politics and power that would a generation on see even those bosses who have made the biggest fortunes in the history of the world out of technological hype broadcast to the whole world their extreme hostility to the very idea of telecommuting, or make the Internet a weapon in the arsenal of Authority against Dissent as much or more than the reverse. (That was not the kind of thing one was likely to get in Newsweek then any more than now.)

Rather what Stoll based his argument on was the need for “human contact,” which he was sure the Internet would fail to provide. The result was that where his predictions were correct he was far off the mark in regard to the reasons why (those matters of economics, politics, power), and totally wrong about other points, like his dismissal of online retail and the possibility that it might threaten the business of brick-and-mortar stores, or the viability of online publishing. The truth is that when it comes to mundane tasks like buying cornflakes and underwear convenience, and cheapness, counts for infinitely more than “human contact” with the hassled, time- and cash-strapped great majority of us — while where their performance is concerned human contact is, to put it mildly, overrated. Indeed, it is often a thing many, not all of them introverts, would take some trouble to avoid. (Do you really love encountering pushy salespersons? Long checkout lines where you encounter more rude people? Sales clerks of highly variable competence and personability? For any and all of whom dealing with you may not exactly be the highlight of their own day, one might add?) Indeed, looking at a college classroom in recent years one sees two of his predictions belied, as they are reminded that, while Stoll may indeed be right that “[a] network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee,” the average college student much prefers that “limp substitute” to chatting with their neighbors, let alone attending to that instructor right there in the room with them, whom large numbers of them happily replace with an online equivalent whenever this becomes practical.

Thus does it go with other “entertainments.” Stoll may well be right that “no interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert,” but how often do most people get to go to those? In the meantime the multimedia display has something to commend it against the other substitutes (like the Walkman of Stoll’s day). And this is even more the case with his remark that no one would “ prefer cybersex to the real thing” After all, the “real thing” isn’t so easy for many to come by (even when they aren’t coping with pandemic and economic collapse), while even for those for whom it might be an option it seems that not merely cybersex with the real, but “love with the virtual,” is competitive enough with the real kind to make many a social critic wag their tongues (with, I suspect, what is treated as a Japanese phenomenon today, like the “hikikomori”, likely to prove far from unique to that country in the years ahead).

Far more than Stoll, Edward Castronova and Jane McGonigal seem to have been on the right track when writing about how poorly our workaday world comes off next to the freedoms, stimulation, satisfaction of virtuality, especially when we consider what that reality is like not for the elite who generally get to make a living offering their opinions in public, but the vast majority of the population on the lower rungs of the social hierarchy, facing a deeply unequal, sneering world which every day and in every possible way tells them “I don’t care about your problems.” Indeed, while a certain sort of person will smugly dismiss any remark about how the world is changing with a brazen a priori confidence that things are always pretty much the same, it seems far from implausible that things are getting worse that way (it’s hard to argue with a thing like falling life expectancy!), while it seems there is reason to think that the virtual is only getting more alluring, with people actually wanting it more, not less, as it becomes more familiar to them — a familiar friend rather than something they know only from the Luddite nightmares of so much bottom-feeding sci-fi. In fact, it does not seem too extreme to suspect that many have as little as they can to do with the real offline world — and that only because of the unavoidable physical necessities of dealing with it, on terms that make it any more attractive, only underlining the superiority of the virtual in life as they have lived it.

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