Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Internet Ain't Such a Much

The Internet is so big, so powerful and pointless that for some people it is a complete substitute for life. ~Andrew Brown

I ran across this article by Clifford Stoll the other day, in which exposes the Internet for the over-hyped fraud it is -- back in 1995.

Now the person who posted the link was, of course, having a big chortle over how completely wrong this guy was 23 years ago. Ha-ha, ho-ho, it is to laugh at his quaintness. I am assuming he didn't read the article, because, to me, it made a lot of sense. Mr. Stoll didn't bat 1.000, but he comes pretty close to the mark in a number of ways.
He points out, as I have on occasion, that, yes, there's a huge amount of information on the Internet. A monumental amount. Lots. Unfortunately, much of it is drivel, whether provided by bloggers (except this one, of course) or by mainstream media. Some of the stuff on CNN, ABC, FOX, or MSNBC will bring tears to one's eyes, sometimes from laughter that supposed professionals can be so stupid. I mean, how else to explain the I-69 brouhaha, the home computer picture that's actually a submarine, and other silliness that the media has spread based on Internet gags and rumors? I've tried to track down some outre stories a time or two and found all of them linking back to the same suspect source.

It's like all those Bermuda Triangle books that mention the ill-fated Navy flight that disappeared, supposedly due to the infernal forces at work in the Triangle. All of them quote supposedly official transcripts of radio communications. Except that the genuine transcripts don't contain all those juicy comments about everything being "upside down" and all the instruments being crazy. Seems those statements were invented by the author of one of the first Bermuda Triangle books and quoted by every subsequent "believer."

The Internet is a lot like that.

Mr. Stoll does underestimate the extent to which politicians would use the Web. Why wouldn't they? Politics and the Internet are a perfect union. If you make a strident dubious statement that's reported in a newspaper or on TV, the reporter is liable to say something about the statement's accuracy. On the Web, it's up to the reader to check the accuracy, which most won't.

As to computers replacing teachers, Mr. Stoll is dead on. Computers are a useful tool, just like a sliderule or a film, but a good teacher makes the difference, not a computer.

When it comes to the Internet economy, he hits and misses, but on one point he is dead on. The Internet isn't replacing bricks and mortar any time soon. Now I buy a lot of stuff on the Internet. I also buy a lot of stuff in stores. I live near a city of around 30,000 which is building it's third new shopping plaza in three years, to go with the other two that were already in the area. I'd say a lot of people are still going to stores.

(Booth's mercantile center consists of one stop 'n' rob and a motel. But it was like that before the Internet, too.)

Look, people used to buy from catalogs. Now they buy from the Internet. The bricks and mortar boys got smart and dumped catalogs and went on the Web. There's a lot of money to be made on the 'Net, but you can still make money in a store -- and a lot of people are doing it.

A lot of people want to make the Internet out to be something that's changing mankind. Mankind ain't changing any time soon.

Supposedly, the 'Net was going to be this marvelous aggregation of "communities" where there would be love, peace, and mutual understanding. R-i-i-i-i-ght. I took a shot at this fantasy a long time ago. Basically, I said that people take their prejudices and pettiness with them right to the web, and they can do anonymously.

Some sites have become such cesspits of vulgar language, vituperative flamings, and general hooliganism that, a while back, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales (king of that bastion of anarchy, Wikipedia) tried to push a Code of Conduct. Don't remember? I'm not surprised. It didn't exactly excite the "community." (I did think the sherriff's badge was kind of cutsey though.)

You want to know about the Internet community? Let me break a rule of mine here, and talk about my work. I got a call today from a detective. He wanted to alert the system administrators (of which I am one) that his division was conducting a sting on a singles site to track down predatory types who use these sites for something a lot more rotten than dinner and a movie. He gave me his IP address so we wouldn't be turning him in when we saw some of the sites they were being sent to by these creeps.

Know what's really bad about this? A few months ago, I got a similar notification from another detective who was conducting a sting where he posed as a 12-year old to catch pedophiles.

Now we all make jokes about half the people on some "social networking" sites being perverts and the other half being cops pretending to be teenage girls. But the sad fact is that Internet "communities" suffer from the same ills as regular communities and have to be policed the same way.

The real problem here is that, as Mr. Stoll points out repeatedly, what matters is human interaction. Whether it's a salesperson, a teacher, or just other human beings, we need people.
The Internet is no substitute for that, never has been, never will be.

And don't even get me started about e-mail.


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