Ed Driscoll

When Newsweek Violated Arthur C. Clarke's First Law

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong,” Clarke wrote over half a century ago. Back in 1995, in an article by 1990s pop culture technology maven Clifford Stoll a few years after the World Wide Web began making the Internet accessible to all, Newsweek predicted:

Consider today’s online world. The Usenet, a worldwide bulletin board, allows anyone to post messages across the nation. Your word gets out, leapfrogging editors and publishers. Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophany more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harrasment, and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen. 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 Intenet. Uh, sure.

Sure, Stoll completely missed the Kindle, but note the elitist snark at Citizen’s Band radio, which in many ways anticipated the democratized media that was just around the corner — in the early 1980s, CompuServe launched its online chat format, which they dubbed “CB Chat” to make the format instantly recognizable. (Which sold me — I was one of its first users, logging in on TRS-80 Model I and Hayes modem.)

Curiously, the seemingly pie-in-the-sky ATT commercials narrated by Tom Selleck, which first aired a few years prior to the above article, actually got far more right about the technology that was to come. Only the Picturephone, long an obsession of Bell/AT&T hasn’t happened yet:

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There are some aspects of the Internet that Stoll would get right — its Jacobin-like mob mentality (two words: Justine Sacco) and its negative impact on retail business. (I love Amazon, MP3s and the Kindle; I miss ubiquitous local book and record stores.) But then, much of the problem with the article stems from its title: “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana.” Did anybody think it would be? It was obvious it would be radically transformative, as futurists such as Clarke and Alvin Toffler had predicted decades prior to the Web’s launch), but nirvana? Not likely when human emotions are involved, which like any communications medium, the Internet simply transfers elsewhere.