The original star of this column.
I've had an unfinished copy of Stoll's book on my bedstand for half a year. For
a number of weeks I would diligently open it on Shabbat mornings and read a
chapter, often running to get a pencil to underline yet another passage that would
cause my jaw to drop and have me exclaim out loud - "did he really write that?".
Stoll has a pleasant, off-the-cuff style of writing which in large portions probably
rubs the wrong way, but in short spurts of reading can be quite enjoyable. What's
more, I actually enjoy reading critiques of my cherished opinions, and since Stoll
was writing as an internet pioneer, as someone who'd been there but had become
disillusioned, there seemed to be good reason to pay attention to what he had
But he wears thin much too quickly. Writing about the possibility of reading a
book via a computer (p. 41) he writes:
Come to think of it, I can't read an electronic book in the bathtub, on the beach,
or on the subway. Book publishers have nothing to worry about.
True, the latest reports on Amazon's Kindle (for instance) suggest that even now,
more than a decade later, the ultimate e-book reader has yet to arrive, but book
publishers certainly don't seem to be behaving as though they have "nothing
to worry about".
Stoll is highly cynical about the possibility of true human communication via
the computer. He writes (p. 24):
Electronic communication is an instantaneous and illusory
contact that creates a sense of intimacy without the emotional investment that
leads to close friendships....
A PEW Internet & American Life project report from early 2006, Online
Dating, tells us that:
No doubt, the networks are certainly great places to meet men. There are several
guys online for every woman. But, like the outlook for women in Alaska, the
odds are good, but the goods are odd.
There is now relatively broad public contact with the
online dating world. Some 31% of American adults say they know someone who has
used a dating website and 15% of American adults – about 30 million people –
say they know someone who has been in a long-term relationship or married someone
he or she met online.
Statistics such as these suggest that a vast number of people aren't quite as
cynical as Stoll seems to be on this issue, and that while, as Stoll suggests,
dating sites aren't any better than "coffeeshops, libraries, synagogues,
and football games" for meeting people, they apparently aren't
any worse either.
Stoll also reports, after a lengthy and enjoyable anecdote
from his youth that suggests that he's actually quite sympathetic toward the "virtual",
that the very possibility of e-commerce is a fantasy. He writes (p. 21-22):
Whether yo-yos, books, records, or insurance, there
are good reasons why business doesn't work over the Internet. As we'll see later,
there's no way to send money across the network. Bit-heads talk about digital
cash, but can only show experimental systems with fancy names like DigiCash
and First Virtual. For a long while, it's funny money....
It would seem, more than a decade down the line, Amazon and eBay, not to mention
online banking, and who knows how many other internet success stories, are proof
that a very large number of people are willing to trust "pretty graphics"
at least as much as a face-to-face salesperson.
"Just technical details that can and are being fixed," says Bill Cheswick, a
programmer at AT&T. "After digital cash in introduced, we'll be able to carry
out business directly over the network." By implication, we'll carry out
routine sales through networks, bypassing salespeople.
I disagree: network authentication software can never give the same sense of
trust as a face-to-face business transaction. No computer network with pretty
graphics can ever replace the salespeople that make our society work.
However, more than a decade later, even though Stoll's predictions have proven
unconvincing, or perhaps even simply wrong, I'm not sure that there's sufficient
reason to devote a column to them. (Personally, I've never been particularly
good at predicting the future, so I shouldn't take
too much pleasure from showing that someone else hasn't succeeded either.) Boidem
columns attempt to examine issues that actually impact upon our lives, and though
an unsuccessful attempt to tell us that we shouldn't put our trust in an internet-based
future may be interesting, it hardly seem to have the meat necessary for an actual
Go to: The internet and some of its discontents.