“An expensive fad for the rich.” Not Bitcoin – the internet. The 1990s were full of tech leaders and journalists who didn’t think the internet would catch on.
Blockchain won’t live up to the hype.
History is full of technology scares and predictions that never amounted to anything. 27 years since the invention of the World Wide Web, the internet is used by 4.2 billion people. But back in the 90s, even Bill Gates – then the reigning king of the tech world – didn’t think it would take off.
Even the smartest commentator isn’t immune to a little Luddism every now and then. Which is why blockchain naysayers should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Here are seven technology leaders and commentators who got it wrong about the internet. Their comments are oddly reminiscent of crypto adversaries, don’t you think?
The most famous example comes from astronomer Clifford Stoll. In a piece titled “The Internet? Bah!” for Newsweek in 1995, the objectively clever Stoll proclaimed that “no online database will replace your daily newspaper”, going on to respond to the idea of buying books and newspapers over the internet with an “Uh, sure.”
In his accompanying book, Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll also described the idea that e-commerce might rise to prominence as “baloney”. When the Newsweek article first resurfaced on Boing Boing in 2010, Stoll left a comment saying, “Now whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts. Might be wrong, Cliff.”
Contemporary technology skeptics might do well to exercise the same caution…
In the mid-90s, Bill Gates was the biggest name in technology. Far from the cuddly philanthropist of today, he was the original tech cowboy, the first to be threatened with an EU antitrust investigation, the true mark of a Silicon Valley innovator.
In his 1995 book The Red Road, Gates said he didn’t believe the internet had the technology necessary to develop “killer apps” that would “lure consumers.” Four years later, in his 1999 Business @ the Speed of Thought he presciently predicted automated price comparison, social media and more.
He was certainly on the wrong side of history in the first place, but he was quick to come around.
Robert Metcalfe is the co-founder of 3Com, and co-inventor of Ethernet – the technology we use to access the internet via a wired connection. Another technological architect of the 90s, he was as myopic as Gates in recognizing the impact of his own creations.
Writing in computing magazine Infoworld in 1995, Metcalfe declared, “I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
This despite having also formulated Metcalfe’s Law – a mathematical prediction of the growth of communication networks (like the internet) that has since been verified by empirical data.
Simultaneously extraordinarily right, yet spectacularly wrong.
Charles B. Wang may not be a household name, but he’s a legend in the computer business, having spent his life building a multibillion-dollar software company, C.A. Technologies.
Quoted in a New York Times article in 1997, he disparagingly referred to people who didn’t recognize the revolutionary impact the internet was going to have as “zone-heads”.
But he also went on to dismiss the idea that print newspapers would collapse in the face of cyberspace. And that e-commerce would replace going to a store. “[S]hopping is a social experience.” Tell that to late night Amazon addicts.
In both respects, his critique was that the web is useful if you know what you want, but could never replace browsing in a shop – or newspaper – when you’re not quite sure what you’re after.
Essentially, he predicted the filter bubble, but failed to foresee our inability to resist it.
Bryant Gumbel may not be a technology visionary, but as the third longest running host of NBC’s Today show, he is certainly a prominent mainstream commentator.
In a famous clip from 1994, Gumbel and co-host Katie Couric reflect contemporary mainstream attitudes to the internet. There’s confusion over how to pronounce the @ symbol. There’s confusion over how to use it – “Do you write to it like mail?” And the immortal line from Gumbel, “What is internet anyway?” (Note the lack of a definite article.)
Watching from the future, the clip is a lot of fun. But its lesson is perhaps best summed up by the tagline in a later BMW advert that parodied it (which featured Couric and Gumbel): “Big ideas take a little getting used to.”
The year is 1993. Jurassic Park is top of the box office. Bill Clinton takes office for his first term in the White House. Nelson Mandela is awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
And CNN reports on “internet” (no definite article) for the first time. While broadly positive about “The Net, to long-time users”, the reporter is concerned that it may turn out to be “an elitist system, available only to people with a computer and a modem.”
On the other side of the pond in 1997, the BBC aired a hand-wringing edition of Right to Reply that worried the internet was “an expensive fad for the rich”.
25 years on, the CNN reporter is right, of course. You still can only access the internet with a computer and a modem. What he didn’t realize was that 55.1% of the world’s population would have that. And in their pockets.
Far from being elitist, the UN now considers internet access to be a basic human right.
Special mention has to go to Steve Chen, CTO and co-founder of YouTube. In keeping with this run of technological gurus who failed to grasp the enormity of their own creations, Chen commented in 2005 that he was concerned about YouTube’s long-term viability because “There’s just not that many videos I want to watch.”
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It might be funny to see how wrong these otherwise brilliant, intelligent tech gurus and journalists were in the 90s. But they didn’t seem so wrong at the time.
Sometimes, resistance to an idea is a sign of its power. Makes you think.
Maybe crypto’s not so crazy after all? Only time will tell.