In the 1990s some of us imagined an information superhighway that would turn us into productivity machines and cause an intellectual flowering unlike any in history, while others predicted this whole “internet” silliness would be nothing but a footnote in history – the pet rock of the electronic age.
However most of us imagined the internet back in the 1990s, the way it actually turned out seems very different.
For example, in 2013, the Gangnam Style video has been watched over 2 billion times. Grumpy Cat has her own press agent. On an ordinary afternoon in the summer of 2014, a sampling of front page links on aggregator site Reddit include:
• A photo of a dog appearing to mediate a dispute between two other dogs over a chew toy
• A cicada that has what looks like the McDonald’s logo on its exoskeleton
• A screen shot from CNN that places Hong Kong in Brazil on a world map
The larval version of the internet, ARPANET, was created in the 1960s for sharing resources among academics. It was then that people began thinking of a vast network of computers as a tool that would usher in another renaissance.
That feeling carried over into the early days of the World Wide Web. Citizen activists could get the word out and stand up to corporate interests. Citizen journalists would get the real stories out there.
In a 1993 interview broadcast in Canada, early World Wide Web aficionado John Allen referred to the web as a “modulated anarchy,” saying, “There’s an interesting kind of restraint that you find. There’s not a lot of cursing or swearing.” How adorable.
But the web as a bastion of human decency, concern, and intellectual sharing wasn’t the only thing people thought about the internet in the 90s that turned out not to be quite right. Here are some more.
Then: Nobody’s Going to Shop Online
One of the biggest 1990s internet detractors was astronomer and early computer scientist Clifford Stoll, who wrote in a Newsweek article, “We’re promised instant catalog shopping – just point and click for great deals. 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?”
Now: Yes They Are
At some point we should ask ourselves, “Have we made online shopping too easy?”
During the 2012 holiday season, people spent $1 billion per day shopping online. Coincidentally that was close to the time Newsweek ended its print edition. In 2013, one-fifth of US and UK holiday shoppers did all of their holiday shopping online.
Then: Nothing Can Replace the Daily Newspaper
Stoll also notably wrote in the same article, “The truth in 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.”
Now: Oh Really?
A study by the American Press Institute published in March 2014 found that among Americans, 56% used a phone and 29% used a tablet to access news in the preceding week. While this may sound as if we’re a bunch of hyper-informed citizens, that may not be the case. The Apple Store offers a free app called “Toilet Time – Mini Games to Play in the Bathroom.” The pitch starts out with, “Time on the toilet has never been particularly amusing.” Heaven help us.
Did Anyone Get It Right in the 90s?
Yes. Some of the most accurate predictions about uses of the internet back in 1995 came not from philosophers or tech developers, but from fifth graders, who are now Snapchat-ing and Tinder-ing around the clock, and staying away from Facebook because their grandparents have accounts there now. They figured out that the internet would assume the roles of our phones, televisions, and shopping malls, and they even (frighteningly) predicted the importance of cats in the online world.
What will the internet be like in 20 years? Will there be Starbucks loyalty crematoriums, as one satire site predicts? Other predictions include brain implants for downloading entire books directly into our gray matter, a boom in alternative currencies, and major social media fatigue. Who can say?