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The Internet Will Fail and Other Stories April 26, 2010

Posted by Peter Varhol in Strategy.

A couple of sites have pointed out that we are at the fifteenth anniversary of Cliff Stoll’s prediction that the Internet will fail.  He actually wrote an entire book on the topic, entitled Silicon Snake Oil (I am embarrassed to admit that I own a copy).  His Newsweek article on the topic attracted millions of readers, and is especially telling:

“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.”

Cliff Stoll is a smart person, and more important, he is a curious and determined person.  While his seminal computer work (he is an astronomer who became involved in computer security by accident), The Cuckoo’s Egg, isn’t technically relevant any more, it reads like a detective thriller, and is an insight into the early days of computers connecting worldwide.

Stoll, as an astronomer at Lawrence Berkeley Labs temporarily without a grant, was assigned to do computer system administration.  This is the 1980s, and serious computing isn’t done on PCs, but on Unix and VAX minicomputers.  A 25-cent accounting error on one system (yes, you used to have to account and pay for computer time, too) led him on a multi-year hunt that ultimately ended in the arrest and conviction of an East German hacker selling defense secrets to the Soviet Union.  The tale is a masterpiece of detective work, dogged persistence, and brilliant deductive reasoning.

Even smart people such as Stoll can’t anticipate the dramatic changes wrought by a seismic shift of thinking and working that rarely occurs in a single lifespan.  But it is wrong to take comfort in the seeming timelessness of simple acts that we take for granted.

I was an academic for much of the 1990s, teaching graduate and undergraduate mathematics and computer science.  At one point I found myself confronted by a senior professor (and my department chair) explaining to me that universities had perfected the art of teaching, and that we would always and forever be situated in front of physical classrooms full of students, writing on a chalkboard.  What at the time I believed a rigid and inflexible attitude and outlook I now look at as simple human nature.

I’m rarely an early adopter of consumer technologies, and I’m probably not nearly as smart as Stoll, but I hope never to be the person that believes that things can’t and won’t change.  If there’s one thing you should count on and live your life by, it’s that tomorrow will be very different than today, and totally unpredictable.



1. Tweets that mention The Internet Will Fail and Other Stories « Cutting Edge Computing -- Topsy.com - April 28, 2010

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Peter Varhol. Peter Varhol said: What I learned, 15 years after Cliff Stoll said that the Internet will fail. http://wp.me/pJhAL-4z […]

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