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Why the Web Won't Be Nirvana
December 12, 2013 12:52 AM   Subscribe

"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. 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." A view of the Internet's future from February 26, 1995 at 7:00 PM
posted by Blasdelb (41 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
What is this 'human contact' he's blathering on about?
posted by pjern at 12:59 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Clifford Stoll is a good one, one of the old-school nerds who had his hands in everything. This article apparently accompanied his book Silicon Snake Oil. And perusal of his Wikipedia bio reveals Clifford's little reappraisal on from the vantage point of 2010:
February 26, 2010 at 5:39 pm

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
posted by koeselitz at 1:10 AM on December 12, 2013 [30 favorites]


I think there's a danger in these "They All Laughed At X, and Now It's Everywhere!" stories.

There's a lot of really promising things that come out but never come to fruition, and genuine scammers like to cite these things to win over new marks. See the rhetoric on sites about homeopathy and perpetual motion. And I feel like it in general makes people too optimistic for their own good. Optimism feels good, but it can lead to dumb actions.

As the saying goes, "They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, but they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

I guess my point is, for the few times pessimism or skepticism downplays something truly incredible, they provide a valuable service in helping us see crap as it really is.
posted by mccarty.tim at 1:34 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Remember reading and re-reading The Cuckoo's Egg - great book. They laughed at Christopher Columbus with good reason, TBH, he was fairly incompetent.
posted by GallonOfAlan at 2:22 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


Give him credit, a CD ROM can't take the place of a competent teacher. I'm not sure my daughter will even remember a time when software came on disks you had to physically put into a computer and install, like some kind of animal.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 2:44 AM on December 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


I'm not sure my daughter will even remember a time when software came on disks you had to physically put into a computer and install, like some kind of animal.

Is this a confession about what you like to do with animals?
posted by newdaddy at 3:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


Some of his predictions may have been wrong, but I still can't find a damn job that will let me telecommute. Not even one or two days a week.
posted by Fleebnork at 3:18 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


He was more right than wrong. We are still in the delusional phase. Snowden is helping with that.
posted by spitbull at 3:41 AM on December 12, 2013 [4 favorites]


Is this a confession about what you like to do with animals?

You might want to perform a web search for AIBO + MEMORY STICK, but unless you're a trainer or a vet, you should skip using a computer at work.
posted by Smart Dalek at 3:52 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


To be fair, the "replacing a competent teacher" has firmly joined fusion in the Hell of Things Eternally "Just Five Years Away."
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:58 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]



To be fair, the "replacing a competent teacher" has firmly joined fusion in the Hell of Things Eternally "Just Five Years Away."


i) Except people are selling MOOCs as viable now.....

ii) On second read is "fusion" being compared to the gerund or the subject?
posted by lalochezia at 4:09 AM on December 12, 2013


i) Except people are selling MOOCs as viable now.....

People sell a lot of things that aren't actually effective. You can buy perpetual motion machines online, too.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:13 AM on December 12, 2013 [7 favorites]


I feel like I read this article when it was printed and had a very "that's just, like, your opinion, man!" reaction. I was ten years old and we'd just subscribed to AOL. As far as I was concerned there was no reason ever to be offline, other than the fact that our ISP charged by the minute.

I think sometime around this article's publication I actually dreamed you could order pizza online. Every time I order a pizza from a website I stop for a second and reflect on the fact that this is literally a dream come true for me.
posted by town of cats at 4:20 AM on December 12, 2013 [24 favorites]


Rote tasks are usually quite easily replaced by machine labor, even rote tasks that require a mind, but anything less predicable becomes complicated.

Human experts commonly understand details we find hard to program, witness how long the self-driving car took. Yet conversely, most humans aren't exactly experts at their ordinary tasks, so machine might beat them without costing unreasonable sum. And there is frequently a sweet spot at automating only portions of tasks, like with chess. It's largely about the economics :

We now have self-driving cars only because driving all around sucks, well driving squanders enormous quantities of human effort, routinely kills people, and represents the most annoyingly shitty activity most people engage in daily.

People enjoy teaching though. Now most teachers aren't exactly experts at teaching, but conversely teachers are cheap. Automated grading, teaching, etc. should eventually relegate humans to roles they enjoy the most, while simultaneously stimulating the students more, I hope. At least automated grading should make feedback immediate, which should help keep students engaged.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:59 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The headline is correct, in that Nirvana is "a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self". Whatever the opposite of nirvana is, that's what the web is turning out to be.
posted by walrus at 5:08 AM on December 12, 2013 [14 favorites]


Automated grading, teaching, etc. should eventually relegate humans to roles they enjoy the most, while simultaneously stimulating the students more, I hope. At least automated grading should make feedback immediate, which should help keep students engaged.

Well, but that's part of the point. Theoretically, you could record (and add interactivity to) professors, automating "the fun part" of class much more easily* than you could automate grading except where answers are very well defined. Multiple choice works well enough, but is extremely limited, once you enter even the world of short answers, you have a serious problem because people don't write what you think they will. You can ID keywords that have to appear, but misspelling and moderately misused words can throw that off pretty easily. So a human still needs to look at each one, mostly for "false errors." So the drudgery (and occasional joys) of grading aren't going away any time soon, except maybe in some of the STEM disciplines (where there seems to be little joy in grading).

* Given completion problems with online courses, especially MOOCS, I have a suspicion that research will discover that asynchronous computer-assisted learning doesn't actually work for most people because of social factors. It's especially bad for incoming undergraduates, who are still learning how they learn, although it has slightly better rates at the upper undergraduate and graduate levels. Of course, that's where a lot of faculty find their most rewarding classroom experiences, so, for those people, it would actually reduce the fun....
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:13 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


Whatever the opposite of nirvana is

Limp Bizkit?
posted by burnmp3s at 5:26 AM on December 12, 2013 [17 favorites]


Culled from this week's news:

Content Farm Demand Media Decimated

MOOCs a failure thus far

and of course, Global surveillance disclosures
posted by gwint at 5:34 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


The top story next to him is "Instagramming Typhoon Haiyan."
posted by fungible at 5:45 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I remember reading this at the time and thinking he was wrong. And he was, by his own admission (to his credit). His point at the time was that the internet was overhyped. It wasn't.
posted by aturoff at 6:05 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm embarrassed about how excited I was over CD ROMs 15 years ago.
posted by davebush at 6:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


He was wrong about certain things, but I think he was more right than wrong.

He was wrong about finding information. Google exists now, and it didn't then.

He was wrong about reading material online. Tablets and e-readers exist now, and they didn't then.

He was wrong about shopping. Amazon exists now, and it didn't then.

But he was right about a lot of things too.

For example, "The cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats," pretty much exactly describes comment sections across the net. YouTube comes to mind as a chief offender.

He was also largely right about government. Even assuming governments get websites right* a lot of citizens don't really use them. Every damn day I deal with people asking for information which is trivially available online. "When's my next court date?!" "Who do I call to report a code violation?!" "Where do I take my child support payment?!" "Where's the courthouse?!" Seriously. It's all online. All of it. In well-designed, easily findable government websites, many of which have prominent FAQ sections that are actually kind of a misnomer, because almost no one actually reads them. Why this is the case is beyond me, but it certainly is.

And he's definitely right about education. As far as instruction goes, all computers and the internet do is to make physical libraries unnecessary. The actual process of imparting and absorbing information--not to mention the essential formative processes that are the foundation of every true education--simply aren't affected by the internet at all. The internet may make it easier to locate reading material, but you still have to read it. The internet may make it easier to distribute and turn in homework, but you still have to do it. Computers may make it easier to physically write an essay compared to doing it on paper, but you still have to know the rules of grammar and have something to say.** A computer may make the materials you need to learn those things more easily accessible, but you can only read as fast as you can read. Having print on a screen as opposed to paper doesn't affect your ability to understand what you're reading either. The ability to instantly call entire libraries to one's screen does not give one any more hours in the day. There was always more stuff available to read than you could possibly read, only now you can actually get your hands on it. Which is nice and all, but doesn't change teaching very much.

He might even be right about newspapers. The internet may be destroying local papers, but it's not replacing them, except for classified ads, which aren't really what he's talking about. If you think of "local newspaper" as "the stack of newsprint I get every morning," then yes, the internet basically is adequate replacement. Nobody needs that. But if you think of it as "the business that produces journalism about issues of local importance," then nothing on the internet has emerged which is even a partial replacement. When local newspapers fold up, bowing to the decimation of their ad revenue by Craigslist and online advertising, nothing is really stepping in to replace them. It's possible that something eventually will, but the business model which supported local journalism in hard copy won't work, and its replacement has yet to emerge.

So I guess I'd divide his argument into two pieces: technological and sociological/anthropological. The technological part he's basically wrong about. The reason it wasn't convenient to shop or search online in 1994 was because the technology didn't exist yet. But the sociological and anthropological problems he identifies, i.e., things which are predicated on the kind of thing that we human beings are, is holding essentially true.

His point at the time was that the internet was overhyped. It wasn't.

I think it was then and it is now. He may have been wrong about some of the details, but the idea that the internet is going to be The Solution to All Our Problems is as silly today as it was twenty years ago.

*Which if recent history has proven anything, doesn't always happen.

**And no, MOOCs aren't really an alternative. It's not at all clear that they're an adequate substitute for physical classrooms, but even if they are, students still have to do all of the actual learning the hard way.
posted by valkyryn at 6:12 AM on December 12, 2013 [16 favorites]


Given completion problems with online courses, especially MOOCS, I have a suspicion that research will discover that asynchronous computer-assisted learning doesn't actually work for most people because of social factors.

I think that it will ultimately depend on what you're learning. Some things will be MOOCable and others will not.
posted by Jpfed at 6:17 AM on December 12, 2013


...government websites, many of which have prominent FAQ sections that are actually kind of a misnomer, because almost no one actually reads them.

No, they're not a misnomer, because people frequently ask those questions - for instance, the people asking those questions you just finished telling us about. The point of a FAQ is to make it unnecessary for people to ask the questions. That doesn't mean everyone stops asking them, it just mean that lots of people with computers do.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:24 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


As far as instruction goes, all computers and the internet do is to make physical libraries unnecessary.

Well, except no. Not in this century, at least, given current funding levels. Too much is either not going on line (because: no money) or is priced beyond most institution's reach (for comprehensive collecting). Open Access might bring costs down in the end, but that still leaves the Humanities (and, to a lesser degree, Social Sciences) monographs not well represented online, and this is changing slowly and the important retrospective work is not being done swiftly or cheaply. Plus, DRM is a nightmare for libraries.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:25 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that it will ultimately depend on what you're learning. Some things will be MOOCable and others will not.

Oh, definitely. I think MOOCs are probably a good place for post-degree certification programs -- where you have motivated people working toward a close and well-defined goal. The article gwint linked above was pretty damning -- college algebra, one of the subjects that would seem best suited to MOOCification, performed really badly against face-to-face classes. You might be right, but, as I first noted, this is a bit like fusion power, where practical deployment has been "just a little bit in the future" for decades. Even non-MOOC online courses have lower than desirable retention and completion rates. It may be that computer instruction will never get beyond a niche market because of social and psychological factors rather than any kind of technical barriers. I think it's too early to tell, but I would not be surprised at all.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:30 AM on December 12, 2013


As far as instruction goes, all computers and the internet do is to make physical libraries unnecessary.

Again, this depends on the subject. For example, if you're learning statistics, with the help of computers you can play with an interactive applet that shows you how sampling distributions work; generating and viewing sampling distributions of different kinds and parameters would be much more labor intensive without the help of a computer.
posted by Jpfed at 6:32 AM on December 12, 2013


Well, except no. Not in this century, at least, given current funding levels.

That helps me out, actually.
posted by valkyryn at 6:44 AM on December 12, 2013


A little while ago, my fiance used an app on his smartphone to order a pizza, then exclaimed "I just used my phone to order a pizza!" Then he paused and said "actually, that doesn't sound very impressive."
posted by kavasa at 6:59 AM on December 12, 2013 [19 favorites]


He was wrong about certain things, but I think he was more right than wrong.

I guess that's kind of subjective, but to me the only parts he got right (so far) were because the Internet utopia predictions were reaching too far or were too optimistic, rather than because Stoll actually had a better prediction of the negative impacts of technology. Basically the predictions he was criticizing were saying that the Internet would change everything and that everything would be better from those changes, and Stoll thought that the Internet would mostly stay the same and wouldn't have much of an impact on the world because of its inherent limitations. Whereas the actual reality 20 years later is that the Internet is changing everything but the results are mixed.

Stoll didn't really get into concrete examples about the Internet making "government more democratic", but he certainly didn't predict things like protest movements being cultivated online (Arab Spring, etc.) or even more mundane aspects like 75% of people in the US filing their taxes online. Computers didn't replace teachers, but especially at high levels reference materials online are superior to anything that had existed before, when Stoll didn't think the Internet would become organized enough to provide basic information like the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. And despite the fact that news is still reported by the same sorts of organizations that existed before, Stoll thought that no one would ever read that sort of content online rather than that newspapers would be forced to go online and would have trouble making that work with an ad-supported model.

In my opinion he was right about some things, but only by default. It's easy to say that someone's predictions about how a big technological advance will change the world are wrong, but if your competing prediction is way further from reality then there's is, it doesn't really make you right about the ones they got wrong.
posted by burnmp3s at 7:01 AM on December 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


A lot of what he got 'wrong' was really more about the Internet as it existed at the time he wrote it - "it isn't magic YET" vs "it will never be magic."

But the one he really, really got wrong was shopping. Specifically: He thinks the lack of salespeople on the Internet is a huge problem, when in fact the ability to quickly and easily go purchase things without being bothered by bothersome employees is one of the biggest advantages of e-commerce.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:08 AM on December 12, 2013 [5 favorites]


the idea that the internet is going to be The Solution to All Our Problems is as silly today as it was twenty years ago.

For a more recent and in-depth critique of solutionism, see To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov.
posted by mark7570 at 7:20 AM on December 12, 2013


Clifford Stoll is a good one, one of the old-school nerds who had his hands in everything.

Also he makes excellent Klein bottles.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:20 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


The second half of Clarke's first law:

"When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."

For a younger dude, qualify that even more strongly.

I am not a computer geek. BASIC was the only computer language I was taught in school... Windows came rather later.

Yet, I have learned a largish part of the skills I use day to day for both work and recreation online. And probably have more opportunity to express my actual more or less unfiltered by social nicety thoughts and opinions there too.

Face to face in meatspace and hand to hand with dead tree storage have many laudable qualities. But I'd not voluntarily limit myself to just these again.
posted by bert2368 at 7:32 AM on December 12, 2013 [3 favorites]


He was also largely right about government. Even assuming governments get websites right* a lot of citizens don't really use them. Every damn day I deal with people asking for information which is trivially available online. "When's my next court date?!" "Who do I call to report a code violation?!" "Where do I take my child support payment?!" "Where's the courthouse?!" Seriously. It's all online. All of it. In well-designed, easily findable government websites, many of which have prominent FAQ sections that are actually kind of a misnomer, because almost no one actually reads them. Why this is the case is beyond me, but it certainly is.

To an elderly or less literate person, or someone who does not use a computer at home, that's about as much help as saying "well it's all available in sanskrit".
posted by walrus at 7:53 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


To an elderly or less literate person, or someone who does not use a computer at home, that's about as much help as saying "well it's all available in sanskrit".

That's the point.
posted by valkyryn at 7:57 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've met great people and even caught a hacker or two.

Is that what they called it back then? I thought by the '90s people knew to use protection.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:36 AM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


pjern: "What is this 'human contact' he's blathering on about?"

Meatware was a very big thing then. [ shrugs ] [ /shrugs ]
posted by IAmBroom at 10:31 AM on December 12, 2013


He's right about shopping on the internet. Have you ever tried to find a decent buggy whip online?
posted by double block and bleed at 3:54 PM on December 12, 2013


Whatever the opposite of nirvana is, that's what the web is turning out to be.

Samsara?
posted by Redfield at 4:42 PM on December 12, 2013


ermmm.

http://www.advancedequine.com/Driving-Whips-s/35.htm

took about 20 seconds
posted by anguspodgorny at 5:13 PM on December 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


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