Stoll’s Skewed Predictions, Part 3

Originally published in The Clarion | September 28, 2011

Continuing from last week, let’s take a final look at Cliff Stoll’s essay. You can read the entire essay from this link http://jimsharp.net/stoll if you wish. The last few paragraphs of his essay focus on what he refers to as cyberbusiness. For me, these paragraphs exemplify more than any other parts of the essay the Web in the mid-1990’s. To see where online retailing is today compared to his predictions over a decade and a half ago is quite staggering. While most of us know someone or even is one of the many who simply refuse to purchase items online, it’s impossible to dispute the fact that online retailing, or cyberbusiness in Stoll’s words, is mammoth.

Stoll specifically mocks the idea that the Web will allow travelers to order airline tickets online. I’m sure there are many 20-somethings and teens who think that the Web is the only outlet from which airline tickets can be purchased. Needless to say, times – and the Web – have changed since 1995. One of Stoll’s strongest arguments supporting his thoughts is an interesting one. In his words, the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople. In many ways, he was right on this point. Online retailing lacks true salespeople even today. In the absence of salespeople, many online vendors have real-time chat features where you can either speak or type with a (supposedly) real human being about the products you are interested in purchasing. I have used this feature a few times over the years and for the most part got answers to my questions. A theory I have of 21st Century online retailing is something worth considering. I feel that in our fast-paced society, many of us don’t want to be bothered by salespeople. We typically know enough about the product which we’re shopping for that our purchase is literally a few simple mouse clicks away. Forget negotiating the price; convenience and speed easily trump interaction with a salesperson for many of us.

Stoll’s essay ends with an interesting perspective on the Web as a whole. Since we’re all entitled to our own opinions, I will come just short of calling his final words factual. Nonetheless, we’ll end this week with his words, words that I feel are worth considering. 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. No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. 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.

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Stoll’s Skewed Predictions, Part 2

Originally published in The Clarion | September 21, 2011

Continuing from last week, let’s take a closer look at Cliff Stoll’s essay. You can read the entire essay from this link http://jimsharp.net/stoll if you wish. Stoll’s first paragraph mocks visionaries of the time who predicted telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms, electronic town meetings and virtual communities, and a more democratic government thanks to Web technology. Needless to say, most of these predictions were quite skewed. Telecommuting (working from home) has saved small and large companies untold amounts of money over the years. Interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms have brought the world to our fingertips at home, work and to students worldwide. Electronic town meetings have made local, state and national government events accessible to the masses and virtual communities (social networking) are all the rage.

Whether we have a more democratic government thanks to the Internet and Web is not so clear cut. Millions of dollars are spent by politicians each year in an effort to grab votes from their constituents. I have found it interesting how many local politicians use the Web as a critical part of their campaigns. Just how beneficial having a website is to local politicians is unclear, but I feel pretty sure it doesn’t hurt one’s chances. The Web has also brought about the demise of several politicians. Never before has the majority of our nation’s population had so much access to politics. If a politician slips up and says something that is questionable, it is immediately published over the entirety of the Web. Every move a politician makes is analyzed and scrutinized online by mass media. Does this make our government more democratic? I will let you decide.

Stoll continues his essay by saying “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”. Overall, I have to agree with this statement. While many of us get our news online, whether via paid subscription or for free, printed media continues to succeed, although whether this will hold true in the future is left to be seen. I feel very strongly that technology cannot and will not replace competent teachers. Shoving interactive applications into the faces of our students with the expectation that they will learn as well or better than from a human being is simply expecting too much. Technology alongside competent educators can be a highly successful means of teaching, replacing teachers with technology is simply unrealistic. Finally, I feel it is fair to say that technology has changed the way our government works. Whether our government functions better than it did before everything was at our fingertips is debatable, but the fact is things are very different in government today compared to a couple decades ago thanks to the Web. Next week we will continue our examination of Stoll’s essay.

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Stoll’s Skewed Predictions, Part 1

Originally published in The Clarion | September 14, 2011

In last week’s article, I introduced Cliff Stoll, an astronomer, speaker, thinker and computer geek. His book, The Cuckoo’s Egg, both inspired and motivated me as a college student struggling to achieve a degree, and probably more importantly, direction in life. In February of 1995, Newsweek Magazine published an essay by Stoll, one that has recently resurfaced and in many circles has become quite a good laugh. While his ideas, thoughts and predictions do seem quite outlandish in 2011, the essay offers tremendous insight into the Internet and Web of the mid-1990’s. Some, if not most, of his specific predictions have proven faulty yet as a whole, there is a substantial amount of validity in the general ideas and theories he presented.

It would be advantageous to read Stoll’s essay for a full understanding of his thoughts and ultimately my examination of them. I have linked his article on my website at http://jimsharp.net/stoll, please feel free to click over and read the essay before proceeding. For starters, the title and subtitle of Stoll’s essay are typical for a work by him – The Internet? Bah! – Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn’t, and never will be, nirvana. Just like The Cuckoo’s Egg, his choice of title for this essay catches my attention and makes me want to read on. Let’s begin by defining the key word in his subtitle – nirvana is a state of perfect happiness; an ideal or idyllic place. Chalk one up for Cliff. I feel it’s fair to say that even after all of the technological breakthroughs and maturation of cyberspace since 1995, the Internet and Web are most certainly not ideal or idyllic places.

Unfortunately for Stoll, after such a fantastic title and subtitle, his essay begins with and almost entirely encompasses predictions that have proven mostly false. For starters, Stoll’s essay begins with quite a revelation about himself. The first sentence of his essay tells us that he has been online for two decades. Considering the essay was published in 1995, this should really put his viewpoints into a good perspective. He experienced the Internet essentially from its infancy, watching it grow from nothing more than a tool for academia to a commercial product that, to be fair, was not very commercial even in 1995. The world’s first graphical Web browser was only introduced in 1993 and in 1995 there were only a little over 6.5 million hosts on the worldwide network. It should be fair to say that the Web in 1995 was an infant in diapers.

Stoll’s first paragraph continues by mocking visionaries of the time who predicted telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms, electronic town meetings and virtual communities, and a more democratic government thanks to the technology. It should go without saying that Stoll’s idea of the future Web was skewed by blinders over his eyes. Nevertheless, a closer look at his ideas is in order. We will continue next week.

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Clifford Stoll

Originally published in The Clarion | September 07, 2011

Most, if not all of us, are significantly influenced by someone (or many someones) during our lifetimes. I feel it fair to say that by the end of our second decade of life each and every one of us can identify at least one person whom we would pinpoint as a major contributor to who we are. This special person could be a parent, sibling or dear friend. It could be a former teacher, minister or even cartoon character. Those of us who can without hesitation identify many such influences in our lives are truly blessed. In my waning college days, I was required (forced) to, of all things, read a novel for one of my IT classes. At that point in my life I truly despised reading. Thanks to my focused determination to complete my coursework and obtain a college degree, I sucked it up and bought the book. My life would never be the same again.

For starters, the title of the book was appealing. Had it been titled The History of Disk Drives or Why Dial-up Internet is the Best Thing Ever, I’m not so sure I would have even bothered. Fortunately for me though, the title sparked my curiosity if nothing else. Having to read The Cuckoo’s Egg by Clifford Stoll was and still is one of my fondest memories from my college coursework. Odds are good that most of you have not heard of Clifford (Cliff for short) Stoll. I had never heard of him myself when I was introduced to the Cuckoo’s Egg. While I have very little in common with Cliff on a personal or professional level, reading his novel and subsequently seeing him on television, YouTube videos and reading some of his essays, I feel like there is a little part of Cliff in me.

A doctor of Astronomy, Cliff Stoll experienced a true crime story first-hand while working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labratory in California. Since he had some familiarity and interest in computers in the 1970’s and 80’s, he was simply at the right place at the right (or maybe if you ask him, wrong) time.

The Internet in the mid-1980’s was almost nothing like what we know today. Almost exclusively a network for military, government and educational institutions, there was no Web, no eBay and most certainly no social networking portals. Even without all of these luxuries of the Web, the Internet was swiftly becoming a very active and happening place in the world of academia. With the connectivity came the criminals and, well, Cliff stumbled upon quite the case of computer espionage while searching for a 75-cent accounting error. The rest, as they say, is history. I encourage you to find and read the book if any of the above interests you. In coming weeks I would like to expand on an article that Cliff wrote in 1995, opinions in which have become quite legendary (and for some folks laughable) in forecasting the future of the Internet.

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