Clifford Stoll was right; the web isn’t nirvana


Clifford Stoll. Most likely, you’re hearing this name for the first time in your life or for the first time in a long time. I had never heard of Clifford Stoll until just the other day, thanks to YouTube’s recommendations. Clifford Stoll is an astronomer, author, and teacher who was part of a 1986 investigation that led to the capture of hacker Markus Hess.

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Now, I’m not pretending to be an expert on Clifford Stoll or any of his research or teachings. I have watched a lecture he gave in 1999, and the man is certainly eccentric. But beyond some quick research and a few articles, I don’t know a whole lot more about the man.

What prompted me to write this editorial was an article Clifford Stoll wrote in Newsweek in 1995 titled, “Why the Web Won’t Be Nirvana.” In this piece Stoll writes:

I’m uneasy about this most trendy and oversold community. Visionaries see a future of telecommuting workers, interactive libraries, and multimedia classrooms. They speak of electronic town meetings and virtual communities. Commerce and business will shift from offices and malls to networks and modems.

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.


Of course, most of us can agree that Clifford Stoll was wrong on almost every one of these points. We can easily see that the internet has changed how business is done and even how government functions.

Stoll scoffs at the idea of reading books online or on a device and even mentions that laptops can’t be taken to the beach. Again, both ideas miss the mark as millions enjoy reading and listening to books online, and millions of more use tablets, smartphones, and even laptops at the beach.

But some of what Clifford Stoll says in this 1995 Newsweek article really stuck out to me.

What the Internet hucksters won’t tell you is that 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.


While some may argue that the validity of information on the internet is more accurate now than ever before, after all, we now have “fact-checkers” employed by companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter. But are we really better off?

In the climate the internet is in now, I don’t really think we are better off. Newsrooms, “fact-checkers,” and media personalities have allowed their biases to creep into the data being disseminated on to the internet. Fact and fiction have never been more blurred than they are today.

I’m not here to make a political statement; that’s not what we do here. But I can say that my confidence in our newsrooms and media has never been lower, and that goes for all sides.

Clifford Stoll was right; the web isn't nirvana
The internet is a vast yet lonely place.

Still, Clifford Stoll made another observation that I think is far more damning than blurred and biased information.

What’s missing from this electronic wonderland? Human contact. Discount the fawning techno-burble about virtual communities. Computers and networks isolate us from one another. A network chat line is a limp substitute for meeting friends over coffee.

No interactive multimedia display comes close to the excitement of a live concert. And who’d prefer cybersex to the real thing? While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where—in the holy names of Education and Progress—important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.


I think Clifford Stoll hits the nail on the head here. The internet has torn down human contact and face-to-face conversation. While many of you will disagree with me, I believe that to be human is to need contact with others.

Even going shopping at a brick-and-mortar store, seeing other people, hearing others’ voices, feeling others’ emotions. This all helps us to see the humanity in one another. Sitting behind a screen on Twitter dehumanizes us making it easier to rage and be angry over the smallest things. Shopping on Amazon removes that sensation of other people around you, the smells and sounds of life.

I think the internet has severely crippled our ability to give empathy, compassion, love, and kindness to one another. It’s certainly been a useful tool in many ways, but in others, it’s torn us apart.

What do you think of Clifford Stoll and his ideas? Please share your thoughts on any of the social media pages listed below. You can also comment on our MeWe page by joining the MeWe social network.

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