Can You Learn From a Prediction That Was Wrong?

Recently, a bunch of the blogs and journals I read (including my friends, not just big, famous sources) have had some bones to pick with Clifford Stoll’s 1995 Newsweek opinion piece, “Why Web Won’t Be Nirvana”. Stoll said: “no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

A lot of people have been, effectively, pointing and laughing at Stoll’s failed prediction. I’d rather consider it a cautionary tale: The man who was so totally wrong wasn’t just a random pundit who didn’t know what he was talking about. He was Clifford Stoll — author of The Cuckoo’s Egg, a man who had been online for 20 years at a time when most people were just beginning to hear that there was a such thing as the World-Wide Web, and the man who traced German cracker Markus Hess through umpteen layers of insecure computer systems and networks.

In short, the man knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t a Senator Ted Stevens. If he could be so wrong, how much faith can I place in my own predictions about where the Internet’s headed?

But wait, there’s more — how wrong was he? Sure, Stoll claims that “no online database will replace your daily newspaper”, which has turned out to be completely false. But how about “no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher”? No matter how interactive the CD, it can’t substitute for a good human teacher’s ability to guide and nurture a student’s intellect. (Not without AI, which is still at least 20 years away — just like it’s been for the past 50 years.)

And maybe you think it’s obvious that CD-ROMs can’t replace real teachers. But there have been, and there still are, people who claim their CDs are just as effective as face-to-face teaching methods — or even more effective.

Stoll gripes about the problems of Usenet. Okay, the main bulk of Internet conversation has moved to blogs and comment threads, but his words still apply: “Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment, and anonymous threats.”* There’s a reason why many of my friends say, “Never waste your time reading the comments.”

I’ve written before about the effects of “harassment and anonymous threats”. That was just last year, and I doubt that all the anonymous threateners have suddenly left the Internet.

It’s very easy to look at Stoll’s rant and get distracted by the petty details: “Usenet? Hah! How archaic!” But that’s just a way of trying to remain comfortable, and ignoring the ways in which things haven’t changed one bit. Because the problems of anonymity aren’t technological problems; they’re problems of human nature.

But even in the places where Stoll was wrong — demonstrably, ridiculously wrong — it does me no good to simply point and laugh. Instead, I’d rather ask myself, “Could I have done any better?” Stoll claimed that online shopping would never take off:

[Internet hucksters promise that] We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the Internet — which there isn’t — the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.

He’s wrong on almost every particular; the only one that might possibly be an exception is “negotiat[ing] sales contracts”. Aside from that? I’ve lost track of how many restaurant reservations I’ve made online and how many airplane tickets I’ve bought online; over the past ten years, I’m quite positive that I’ve done those things far more often online than by “traditional” methods. Even if you don’t consider PayPal to be quite trustworthy, online credit-card transactions are now safe and secure.

And salespeople? Most of the time, I can do without them. I can’t help but remember the last time my girlfriend and I visited a Victoria’s Secret; after being approached by 5 different salespeople in as many minutes, we left the store in frustration at being interrupted and distracted so much — to the point that we couldn’t even browse the merchandise in peace!

Great, so Stoll was totally wrong about online shopping. If you’d asked me about it in 1995, what would I have said? Would my predictions have been any better?

And more to the point: What am I predicting right now? And how wrong am I? And how can I learn from Stoll’s mistakes — or my own — and make better predictions?

That’s the real take-away from Stoll’s article. And those are question I don’t have the answers for yet. (If you’ve got answers, leave a comment and tell me!)

* All quotes from Newsweek edited to fix simple spelling mistakes.

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