Why is this page text-only?


App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

« Article RoundUp: Privacy Issues, Cost Savings, Open Access, and Isenberg | Main | The Latest From Lafayette, LA »

March 27, 2008 9:36 AM

The Internet? Bah! circa 1995...

Sometimes you stumble across articles that both make you upset and make you think.

When I first read this Newsweek article entitled "The Internet? Bah!" I found myself getting angry at passages like this:

"...I'm uneasy 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.

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense?"

To be honest, I couldn't believe I was reading this, until I noticed something odd: the date for the article was 1995. Turns out Newsweek had decided to repost an old article about the early days of the Internet.

But what's interesting was how right and how wrong this diatribe was in arguing the point that the Internet is overrated and not likely to revolutionize society.

Let's go through the article piece by piece to break it down to see how far we've come and how far we still have to go.

The article continues:

"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."

Well, at least for me, the Internet has replaced my daily newspaper, and not just recently either. While I used to enjoy reading it growing up, as soon as I hit college the Internet became my primary and often sole source of news. Why be limited to words on paper when there's an endless trove of perspectives, insight, and news to be found online?

The author is definitely onto something when stating that CD-ROMs can't replace teachers--the use of technology in education is often overhyped--but I found it extremely shortsighted to say that no computer network could change the way government works. Have we realized a huge paradigm shift? No, but today you can do a lot of things online that used to require waiting in line, and increasingly governments are becoming more transparent through making documents and video available online. Is it still early days and is adoption still lagging? Yes, but for those people who find and use online resources, they rapidly find them to be essential to enabling a richer relationship with government.

"Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen."

There's definitely still some truth to this. We've got more people blogging than ever, and finding the information you need amongst all that banter can be challenging, to say the least. But what this author seemed to miss is the potential for Internet technologies to find ways to overcome the limitations of finding information online. Don't get me wrong: we've still got a big problem with information overload. But I'd argue it's getting better through the development of more robust and dynamic search capabilities and the increasingly common trend of aggregators of all sorts popping up to make finding related information easier.

"How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc. At best, it's an unpleasant chore: the myopic glow of a clunky computer replaces the friendly pages of a book. And you can't tote that laptop to the beach. Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we'll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure."

The big thing missed here is the oncoming potential of epaper. The concept was around in 1995, but no one thought it was right around the corner. And even today, more than a decade later, you can argue that epaper is still more promise than reality. But in many way it's an inevitable technology that will revolutionize our relationship with the printed word. Additionally, probably 80% of what I read I do on a computer screen and I've never found it to be a bother. Plus there are a number of other new technologies coming down the pipe that promise to make the viewing experience on computers even better, like LED screens.

"Won't the Internet be useful in governing? Internet addicts clamor for government reports. But when Andy Spano ran for county executive in Westchester County, N.Y., he put every press release and position paper onto a bulletin board. In that affluent county, with plenty of computer companies, how many voters logged in? Fewer than 30. Not a good omen."

This isn't a limitation of technology, instead it points to the basic need for things like marketing and awareness building. The Internet is the only platform that can reach everyone and get them to engage and interact on an issue. The only problem is getting them to know what's there, how to use it, and why it'll make their lives better. If people aren't showing up to take advantage of online resources I don't think that's the Internet's fault, I see that as being our own failure to bring our community together.

"Then there are those pushing computers into schools. We're told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software.Who needs teachers when you've got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames--but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I'll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life."

This is one passage I agree with wholeheartedly. The use of technology in education has been overhyped and exemplifies that we can't benefit from the use of technology for technology's sake. Too often I hear about schools mandating the use of technology, teachers that don't know how to use it, and students that end up getting less personal attention than they did before. Don't get me wrong, I see boundless opportunity in the use of technology to help further education. But we've got to be careful not to embrace technology before understanding the problems at hand and how best to solve them.

"Then there's cyberbusiness. We're promised instant catalog shopping--just point and click for great deals. We'll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obselete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?"

I'm torn on this one. On the one hand, the author sounds foolish; everyone I know buys their airline tickets online, more restaurants than ever let you make reservations online, and the promise of "instant catalog shopping" has been realized. At the same time, there is a bit of a disconnect as many people would still rather be able to go touch something before buying it. For some goods the Internet is rapidly replacing retail, but for others it's serving more as a complementary opportunity to compare prices.

"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."

Again, I agree and disagree with this sentiment. I totally agree that human contact has been missing from Internet interactions, and that too often the use of the Internet is isolating people from those around them. At the same time I've seen a grandma see her new granddaughter who's an ocean away using videocalling; I use email to stay in closer more regular touch with people than was ever possible via snail mail; and I still believe that the next generation of the Internet will be uniting local communities. We most certainly do need to be vigilant in making sure we don't fall too far down the rabbit hole of isolation the Internet can create, but the flip side to this coin is that the Internet holds the potential to unite us like we've never been before.

Long story short, I'm saddened that so much of what was said in this article more than a decade ago is still true today. But I'm also heartened that at least some of the fears about the Internet expressed back then are being resolved.

We've still got a long ways to go but sometimes it helps to pause and contemplate how far we've come so that we might better guide our journey moving forward into a better tomorrow.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)