It’s Hard To Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

I have been writing for more years than I care to think about and there a few things I find more painful than reading my predictions from the past (such as predicting success from e-book readers in the 1990s.) So I thought it was a little unfair of the blog Three Word Chant to dig up and reprint a 15-year-old Newsweek piece in which Clifford Stoll that predicts, among other things, that the Internet will fail because, among other things, Usenet is filled with “cacophony.”

Cliff Stoll, author of The Cuckoo’s Egg and Silicon Snake Oil is something of a curmudgeon, but he’s no fool (and he also presides over the wonderful Acme Klein Bottle company.) A close reading of the 1995 article gives a lesson in why our predictions so often are wrong: We expect the future to be just like the present, only more so.

In 1995, the Internet was in its very messy infancy. There was a lot of information out there, but search was primitive and authoritative sources were hard to find. Stoll writes: “Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar.” He doesn’t say how he hunted; presumably it was with Lycos or the then brand-new AltaVista, since Google was not yet a gleam in Sergey’s or Larry’s eye.  The result, he complains, was “hundreds of files” that didn’t answer the question.

In 1995, it was not easy to see that order of a sort would eventually emerge from that chaos even as the amount of content on the Internet exploded. Today, if I search for “Battle of Trafalgar” in  Google, Bing, or Ask.com, the first hit is the Wikipedia entry on the battle that begins: “The Battle of Trafalgar (21 October 1805) was a sea battle….” The noisy disorder of Usenet eventually caused it to become irrelevant for anything but pornography, but you can hardly say that was then end of lively discourse on the Web.

Stoll was equally downbeat on the prospects for what he called “cyberbusiness.” “We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals,” he wrote. “We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”

By 1995, the master salesman of the net, Jeff Bezos, was already on the scene–Amazon.com was launched that year–but hadn’t yet risen to it current $25 billion prominence. And it’s hard to fault anyone for failing to see that the convenience and efficiency of e-commerce, not to mention the power of recommendation engines, would soon trump the virtues of sales people. (But Stoll should have realized, even in 1995, that an on-line payments system was not going to be a big obstacle.)

And in one very important area, Stoll proved to be fundamentally correct. He complained that despite promises, computers had had little impact on elementary or secondary education. Fifteen years and countless billions of dollars of investment later, that is still sadly true. The Web has made research a lot easier, but I don;t think it has helped, and may actually have hurt, student’s research skills. And in the last few years, new databases and communications tools have made it much easier for parents to track their children’s progress. But we are still waiting for the great computer-driven education revolution.

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One Response to “It’s Hard To Make Predictions, Especially About the Future”

  1. Three Word Chant Says:

    Thanks for the link (and your feedback). I wasn’t posting on this article in order to shame Stoll…just thought it was interesting look back at one man’s perspective from 1995. While most of his predictions are anti-technology, his core points about human interaction probably remain true.

    I think the biggest issue was his failure to foresee how the internet would enable people to build it exponentially, as opposed to a static tool for connecting things online. That said…one bad prediction does not an idiot make (plus, i do like his glass bottles).

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