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The Future Freaks Me Out: Clifford Stoll on the Internet, Trends, and Currency
“I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community.”
An article from a 15-year-old issue of Newsweek surfaced a few weeks ago as the subject of some internet fun-making. A few of my friends linked me to it, and it also popped up on BoingBoing, where they had this to say: “His main argument seems to be, ‘Hardware and software will all top out in the mid-90s and, thus, the Internet will never ever get any more user friendly or portable. Also, it is different and scary.’ Hilarity ensues.” Here’s how the essay, by Clifford Stoll – a hacker, astronomer, Klein-bottle maker, and occasional teacher – begins:
“After two decades online, I’m perplexed. It’s not that I haven’t had a gas of a good time on the Internet. I’ve met great people and even caught a hacker or two. But today, I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community.”
I haven’t caught any hackers, and even I wouldn’t use the expression “had a gas,” but I’ve been online for over 10 years now, and I can sympathize with his unease: not with the internet as a whole, but with Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and many other sites that are either trendy or trying to be.
Facebook, because of its relative age, stands out to me as the primary focus of my unease. I remember what Facebook looked like when it first started, and I can see how its perceived worth has impacted its actual function. When Facebook allowed users to register personal usernames this past summer, Douglas Rushkoff wrote an article about how the social media site is morphing into something like what AOL was back when I started using the internet. (Way back in the late 90s, when the “i” was still capitalized.) The advent of personalized usernames notwithstanding, it’s a valid comparison. People can, and do, use Facebook to chat, play games with one another, send one another e-mail and pictures; and if you link to something on Facebook, it formats that link so you stay on Facebook. The site used to be something to visit, like a mailbox; now, it encourages you to hang out.
That doesn’t sound so bad; but the change, coupled with the focused advertising built into Facebook’s current incarnation, reflects an aggregate and aggressive effort to capitalize on a fact of internet commerce: the amount of the people’s attention that you can capture is proportional to the amount of money (in merchandise and advertising revenue) you can make. I have nothing wrong with anyone trying to make a buck to keep the doors open, but that’s not the Facebook I signed up for, and I’d bet it’s not the Facebook people are signing up for even now.
I’m definitely not going to quit Facebook anytime soon; as a place I can go to get in touch with friends and schedule events anytime, it’s become somewhere I can keep all of a certain kind of my stuff. As long as it allows me to do that without too much hassle, I’ll keep at it.
But Stoll’s essay, while short-sighted in its inability to predict a world with Google, PayPal, Amazon, and iPhones, calls out a persistent failure in our perceptions of the internet. There’s certainly plenty of cranking on here, but I can’t help but think of Facebook and Twitter, as useful as they can be, when he says of the Internet, “this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth.” Yes, the technological inadequacies he cites do have the quaintness of a horse and buggy, briefly glimpsed as we cruise by on the information superhighway on our cellular phones. That doesn’t mean we don’t still get blinded by trends, or hooked into them to remain hooked in, even when what we signed up for isn’t what we signed up for anymore.
Personal, commercial, and political interests have picked up on that, and they’re all plying social media platforms to win a slice of our attention so they can increase their own currency. Clifford Stoll may be a crank, but for how astoundingly wrong this essay from 15 years ago turned out to be, on the topic of how easily we can get sucked into internet promises, he still got it embarrassingly right.