Monday, March 15, 2010

Defending Cliff Stoll

Everyone, it seems, is laughing at a 715-word essay author Cliff Stoll wrote for Newsweek back in 1995, under the headline “The Internet? Bah! Hype Alert: Why Cyberspace isn’t, and will never be, nirvana.”

I haven’t read any of the online screeds. I’m late to the party, I suppose. But even after Stoll himself rolled his eyes at his own copy, I have to think: He had a few good points. Newton Minow said the same things about television in the 1960s, and though some of his prescience was not so prescient, much of it was, and can still be said about television today. Same for Stoll's screed against the Internet.

Here's what Minow had to say:
When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.

But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.

You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it.
Substitute "Internet" for television, and I think Minow paints a picture as accurate of the Internet as he did of television. This is why I think that Stoll, despite the obvious howlers in his 1995 essay, still said something then that applies to today's World Wide Web.

First, however, let’s look at what he got wrong. Or sorta, kinda, maybe wrong.

“I’m uneasy,” he wrote, “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.”

I’ve been able to telecommute in two of the past four jobs I’ve held. In the first job, telecommuting was a necessity because my wife also worked, and I was needed home one full day a week so she could put in one full day of work at week. Telecommuting worked in bringing work home for me, but it also failed by bringing work home for me when so other demands – can anyone say children – rob telecommuting of its utility. A more recent bout of telecommuting went more successfully, simple because the kids are old enough they’re in school. Telecommuting is obviously not for those with young children.

I also telecommute for my hobby job, chatting with others in the company who live in Utah and Michigan. But only until recently that telecommuting experience was terrible. We were iVisit, a program we paid $50 a year to have but only occasionally used because the connection never worked for me. Never. Not once. Their voices were garbled. Mine was choppy. So to telecommute, some used iVisit, while the rest of us clung to cell phones on three-way calls. Then we moved on to Skype, and the jokes about the “Idaho internet” faded because this program worked. Voice and chat – I still don’t have a webcam.

I’m not so sure about interactive libraries. What do they mean, interactive? Can I log in and have a story read to me? Not hardly. Can I borrow a book online? Sure, but I still have to drive to the library to pick it up (not that I go to libraries; we have upwards of 2,000 books at home, only about half of which I’ve read. We’re a library unto ourselves). But maybe I’ve not bought in to the entertainment possibilities libraries offer. I’m a funny guy, though.

Multimedia classrooms. Well, if you cut out the multimedia part, then, yes, I agree. This past July, I completed the coursework to earn a masters degree in technical writing. All of my classes, 11 in total, were done via the Internet. But were they multimedia? No. Text, links, the occasional shared random photograph or sound file, but multimedia? No. And for my children, less so. Oh, they have computers in the classroom and they use them. But we still pay the teachers. They still put the lessons together, occasionally using computers when necessary or convenient. But my kids still bring books home from the library and do homework on paper with pencils. I had filmstrips and an old TI-994A in my classroom as a sixth-grader. It still holds true that for computers to work in the classroom, money is needed, and trained teachers. And you have to have a lot of computers. I still remember my English teacher wife lamenting over the fact that the school’s new computer lab boasted of having 20 new computers. When average English class size was 25. “So what do I do with the extra five students,” she asked. Multimedia this.

So he’s hit and miss, mostly miss, but an occasional hit.

Then he hits a few out of the ballpark that, as far as I’m concerned, is still going, going, going, gone and still not hit the ground:

Is our government more democratic? Well, we had town halls and presidential debates featuring questions from “real people,” which included Snowmen, potheads and others posting some of the dumbest questions imaginable to YouTube and getting airtime because the news people are just infatuated with this Internet thing.

Then there’s the whole “We’ll host the debate on healthcare live so the people can see it” thing. That never happened. The capability is there, I suppose, but the will to do so – if I can quote Dr. Strangelove – is a bit lacking.

As is our attention span. “When Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County. NY, he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board,” Still wrote in 1995. “In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen.” Is it really any better today? All these health care bills have been online for months. I’d like a show of hands for how many people actually read them, followed by a show of hands of people who just waited for the news to tell us what’s in the bills. I don’t have to guess which hand-showing will be the larger. Unless I misunderstand, democracy with the small d requires people who are willing to participate and use their brains. They have to read and understand what the government is doing in order to make democracy via the Internet more than just lip service.

Then there’s the democratization of information and publishing: “Your word gets out,” he wrote, “leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizen band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen.”

If the Internet was that bad in 1995, I’m not sure it’s had time to improve with age. Civility in the public sphere has done nothing but deteriorate since 1995, and the anonymity and lack of consequences that Internet has fostered has added to incivility. Oh, it’s done good for a lot of people, but for the most part, all we get is the back-and-forth “Less filling! Tastes great!” arguments of people who’ve already made up their minds and don’t want to hear what the other guy has to think. The Internet hasn’t changed that; it’s just given it a permanent idiot’s platform.

And I still won’t take my laptop to the beach.

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