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.