Tuesday, March 02, 2010

The Dangers of Being So Sure...

Clifford Stoll was something of a computer phenom "back in the day" of the early- to mid-90s. I read his fascinating account (The Cuckoo's Egg)of catching an international group of computer hackers tapping into sensitive US military data and selling it to the Russians. He was on Leno and other talk shoes and had a very Berkeley-esque charisma about him. Heck, he's even on TED.com today. But he also exemplifies what I would call a "cautionary tale" about those amongst us who are overconfident in our opinions about trends in almost any endeavor. Remember that old Zen saw, "we shall see..."? Here it is perfectly quoted by Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakatos in the film Charlie Wilson's War:

"A boy is given a horse on his 14th birthday. Everyone in the village says, "Oh how wonderful." But a Zen master who lives in the village says, "We shall see."
The boy falls off the horse and breaks his foot. Everyone in the village says, "Oh how awful." The Zen master says, "We shall see."
The village is thrown into war and all the young men have to go to war. But, because of the broken foot, the boy stays behind. Everyone says, "Oh, how wonderful."
The Zen master says, "We shall see."

My new mantra is epistemic humility. And What follows are a series of Stoll quotes from a highly popularized Newsweek article he wrote in 1995. It's a chuckle!

Baloney. Do our computer pundits lack all common sense? The truth is 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.

 Well, he's off to be brave, but foolish start!

Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries and multimedia classrooms.

Um, yeah, that's clearly never gonna happen.

They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic.

Someone tell McCain and Obama that last year's election just didn't happen!

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.

The rise of the blogosphere and social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter? Never happened, right?

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.

Yeah, that guy was a nut...or a ground-floor investor in Amazon.com who now owns three islands in the South Pacific and an NFL team...

What the Internet hucksters won't tell you is tht the Internet is one big ocean of unedited data, without any pretense of completeness. Lacking editors, reviewers or critics, the Internet has become a wasteland of unfiltered data. You don't know what to ignore and what's worth reading. Logged onto the World Wide Web, I hunt for the date of the Battle of Trafalgar. Hundreds of files show up, and it takes 15 minutes to unravel them--one's a biography written by an eighth grader, the second is a computer game that doesn't work and the third is an image of a London monument. None answers my question, and my search is periodically interrupted by messages like, "Too many connectios, try again later."

Never saw Wikipedia or Google coming, did he?

Then there are those pushing computers into schools. We're told that multimedia will make schoolwork easy and fun. Students will happily learn from animated characters while taught by expertly tailored software.Who needs teachers when you've got computer-aided education? Bah. These expensive toys are difficult to use in classrooms and require extensive teacher training. Sure, kids love videogames--but think of your own experience: can you recall even one educational filmstrip of decades past? I'll bet you remember the two or three great teachers who made a difference in your life.

Obviously a horrible idea, right?

Then there's cyberbusiness. 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 obselete. 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.


So how did an "early adopter", king-of-the-nerds, superhacker get practically everything wrong? Simply put, he based all his predictions of the future on his experiences in the past and in the present. A better guide? Perhaps futurists like Kurzweil or others who's pictures of life in 2050 are literally mind-altering.

Also, while predicting the future based on past trends is dangerous, one of the things he failed to recognize, conversely, are the clear lessons of history. For example, he decries the "loss of human contact" brought by the Internet. Yet the same kinds of things were said by contemporaries of the invention of the telegraph, steam-powered travel and rail systems. He laments (and forecasts doom upon) typed correspondence via email (what would he have thought of SMSing or IMing - had he known they were coming?!) instead of elegant handwriting - forgetting the lesson of history that at one point pens and paper were considered the height of technological innovation and achievement! Surely some in those days lamented the demise of carving on stone tablets as a much more "enduring" and thoughtful form of human communication!

The list could go on and on.

In any case, the lesson should be that just because we're very smart and perhaps very "wired into" how things have been and are today, we should approach any prognostication with the deepest reluctance and humility!

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