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 to say.

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....

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.
A PEW Internet & American Life project report from early 2006, Online Dating, tells us that:
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....

"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.
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.

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 column.



Go to: The internet and some of its discontents.