The Internet will be a fad, claimed scientist in ’95

He thought the Internet had no future. Merely a fad. A passing fancy.

We were reminded of scientist Clifford Stoll yesterday when we posted a photo from when the Internet first came to NPR. MPR News reporter Curtis Gilbert recently stumbled upon a gem from the MPR archives, a 1995 interview with Stoll by MPR host Paula Schroeder. Stoll was promoting his book Silicon Snake Oil (at the same time he also published a Newsweek article titled, “The Internet? Bah!”)

We advise listening to the full interview (it’s short) because Stoll’s self-assured tone is at least half of the fun. A partial transcript is posted below for your reading pleasure.

Now the transcript…

STOLL: It’s (the Internet) a place for people to post both useful information and vicious, nasty messages. And they exist side by side. As a result, I expect the value of the Internet for communications in general isn’t very high. I don’t think it will ever replace face to face meetings and real rallies – things that get commitment and involvement from people. Rather, it induces a very shallow, ethereal and ephemeral involvement and as such, I think it’s grossly over-promoted and there’s a great deal of hyperbole surrounding it.

SCHROEDER: So you think, like, Newsweek magazine now has a page called “the virtual page” or something, and many newspapers as well, have a separate section devoted to technology and exchanging of information on the Internet. You think that it’s really not that important?

STOLL: I’d say it’s not that important. I think it’s grossly oversold and within two or three years people will shrug and say, ‘”Uh yep, it was a fad of the early 90′s and now, oh yeah, it still exists but hey, I’ve got a life to lead and work to do. I don’t have time to waste online.” Or, “I’ll collect my email, I’ll read it, why should I bother prowling around the Worldwide Web or reading the Usenet” simply because there’s so little of value there.

SCHROEDER: Well Clifford Stoll, there’s gotta be something of value. I know that we use it quite a bit for research here in our newsroom.

STOLL: Really? I’m sorry to hear that.

In 1995 Stoll had a lot to say about the future of the Internet. But in a highly energetic TED talk from 2006 (think Doc Brown from Back to the Future – only more scattered and frantic) he said:

“Asking me to talk about the future is bizarre…If you really want to know about the future, don’t ask a technologist, a scientist, a physicist. No! Don’t ask somebody who’s writing code. No, if you want to know what society’s going to be like in 20 years, ask a kindergarten teacher.”

Note: all research for this post was conducted on the Internet.

-Molly Bloom

  • Greg W

    That is awesome. Stoll sounded downright smug at times. I wonder if people tote this out for him like an embarrassing photograph of him in Zubaz.

    This does bring back memories of an era of skepticism regarding the quality of information found on the Internet.

    Does anyone still remember (or even use) the “Tropical Mankato” web site that bounced around for a while?

  • Donovan

    This was kind of harsh toward Stoll. Yes, he was pretty grating on the topic back in the 1990s. But he never was trying to be a futurist. He was an astronomer who got caught up in the infant internet through his work tracking down a hacker stealing data from the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab. His book on that topic, The Cuckoo’s Egg, was (and is) fascinating if you’re into digital forensics. In retrospect, he should probably have then gone back to astronomy rather than tried to capitalize on his fame with Silicon Snake Oil. His statement about asking a Kindergarten teacher about the future was brilliant, in my opinion.

    Since then, he’s worked teaching science to kids and done a lot of other good things. He has also publicly acknowledged being completely wrong about the prospects for the internet. It would have been nice if that had been mentioned in the piece.

  • Molly Bloom

    @Donovan

    Thanks for the criticism. We acknowledge your point that Stoll is a well-regarded scientist with a history of accomplishment. We didn’t intend to cast aspersions on his career, but merely report that in 1995, he got it wrong about the Internet. Then again, so did many smart people.

  • Erin

    Hilarious. I would feel sorry for the guy if he weren’t so condescending toward the interviewer.