Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Discussing Stoll's Famed 'The Internet? Bah!' Article

An old Newsweek article made its way through the many portals of the Web yesterday written by Clifford Stoll titled, "The Internet? Bah! Hype alert: Why cyberspace isn't, and will never be, nirvana" - link here. I stumbled upon this when a friend posted it on Facebook and, in my own usual fashion, read it quickly without realizing that it was written 15 years ago and had to scoff and rant at pretty much everything in the article. It was then brought to my attention that it was an old article, there was a slap to the forehead, and I reread the article with that in mind.

I then saw it being discussed on different Web sites and people discussing Stoll as being a closed-minded naysayer with no grasps of the potentials of the Internet. I would like to take this opportunity to discuss some of the things Stoll talks about in his article and while I believe, as a scientist, he was outspoken in his article, the article may not necessarily deserve all of the backlash that it is being given. And, on the other hand, it may. Let's take a look at both.

Defending Stoll

Let's start out defending Stoll a bit. He starts out describing that he had been on the Internet for twenty years, and the article came out on February 27, 1995 so he would have been on the Internet since 1975 (I'm good at math).

Let's put the article and 1995 into perspective in terms of the Internet. Just four years before this article was written, the Gore Bill was introduced which helped to build on the prior infrastructure that had been in place since ARPANET in the late 1960's. It was that bill that funded the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois. And, it was the NCSA who helped to build Mosaic and Netscape Navigator.

The beta version of Netscape Navigator wouldn't have come out until about a week after the Stoll article (March 6, 1995). The Internet that Stoll saw was a completely different Internet than what would be around five years later. And, seeing the major technical advancements prior to the Gore Bill or lack thereof, it would not be completely unorthodox for him to have his doubts.

"Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet--which there isn't," Stoll writes and would have been true since Netscape Navigator brought in SSL 2 in 1995 which would later be upgraded in 1996 to a SSL 3 after security flaws were found SSL 2.

Reasons for the Backlash

It is Stoll's own ego that seems to be predicating some of this backlash. He states, "Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth in 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." Well, again using a hindsight is 20/20 mentality, these statements are laughable. But why, as a scientist, would Stoll scoff at such things when it was such an influential time for the Internet.

As I described above, the Gore Bill would give the potential (or at least the thought of potential) of those things some merit. Why would he be so put off by them and use an iron fist to say, "no, this just won't work and anyone who thinks it will is kidding themselves"?

I am not going to talk too much about Usenet and his ideas on bulletin boards, there are arguments I could make to both defend and mock Stoll on those issues - especially if anyone has a large array of friends on Facebook, some are worth listening to and some just join the cacophony of noise Stoll discusses.

To me, it seems that Stoll just had a mindset to go against the ideology of the potential of the Internet with the hopes that he was right. In the end, he failed miserably. What makes the entire article entertaining to me is that when I read it I can think of when the things he talks about happened on the Internet and remember which failed and which had not. If you remember the pre-dot com bust, there were sites that would do just about everything Stoll discussed (e-commerce, travel sites, networking sites, online libraries, etc.) Some failed and some persevered. Over time, the Internet evolved into its limitless potential that we have now and, while I feel Stoll's pain for his misguided attempt at mocking "computer pundits" lack of common sense, it was his own arrogance that was his downfall.

Ironically, I wonder how the Internet's shortcomings and lack of security have done for his blow glass bottle selling business that started in 1996 (one year after the famed article came out). See his site here.

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