On 27 February 1995, the American magazine Newsweek shared the truth about the internet.
“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,” wrote Clifford Stoll, in a piece that has thankfully been preserved online for the ages. “How about electronic publishing? Try reading a book on disc,” Stoll went on, “Yet Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Intenet. Uh, sure.”
17 years later, Newsweek ceased print publication and became exclusively available online.
On the 25th anniversary of the world wide web becoming publicly available, it is very easy to laugh at spectacularly wrong predictions like this one. In 2016, we use the web to find jobs and homes, shop for clothes, diagnose our illnesses, make friends, fall in love, and tell strangers that their opinions on the Labour party are wrong. In fact, the web is so pivotal to modern life that two months ago, the UN declared internet access a basic human right.
Still, Newsweek wasn’t alone in failing to understand the impact Berners-Lee’s world wide web would have on the wider world. Even the man himself, posting on a forum of early internet users in 1991, summarised the invention as, “[aiming] to allow information sharing within internationally dispersed teams, and the dissemination of information by support groups”.
“This summary does not describe the many exciting possibilities opened up by the WWW project, such as efficient document caching…” he continued, blissfully unaware of the forthcoming arrival of Nyan Cat.
In fact, its safe to say that a couple of decades ago, absolutely no one had any idea what we were getting ourselves in for.
John Allen, on CBC, 1993:
“One would think that if you’re anonymous, you’d do anything you want, but groups have their own sense of community and what we can do.”
Speaking to the Canadian television channel CBC in 1993, internet expert John Allen mused about civility and restraint on the internet (you can view the full clip here). Allen shared his belief that our internal rules and values would restrain us from saying and doing terrible things to one another over the world wide web.
Incidentally, an Australian study in March this year discovered that 76 per cent of women under 30 have experienced abuse or harassment online.
Robert Metcalfe, in InfoWorld, 1995:
“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”
Just five years in to the web’s public availablity, Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of Ethernet, gave the whole thing a 12-month life expectancy. Still, he ate his words just two years later when, during the sixth International World Wide Web Conference in 1997, he blended a copy of his column with some water and then consumed the resultant smoothie with a spoon.
Waring Partridge, in Wired, 1995:
“Most things that succeed don’t require retraining 250 million people.”
According to a report from the International Telecommunication Union, the number of internet users increased from 738m in 2000 to 3.2bn in 2015. Still, we’re not sure you could describe them all as “trained”.
Brian Carpenter, in the Associated Press, 1995:
“Tim Berners-Lee forgot to make an expiry date compulsory . . . any information can just be left and forgotten. It could stay on the network until it is five years out of date.”
Anyone wary of outdated internet information has clearly not discovered the joy of the 1998 promotional website for the Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks rom-com You’ve Got Mail.
Tim Berners-Lee, in Information Week, 1995:
“I’m looking forward to the day when my daughter finds a rolled-up 1,000-pixel-by-1,000-pixel color screen in her cereal packet, with a magnetic back so it sticks to the fridge.”
To be fair to Tim, the least likely element of this scenario is that Kellogg’s will bring back free gifts, not that magical screen stickers won’t become a thing.
To have fun searching through weird and wonderful predictions about the internet yourself, check out Elon University School of Communications’ “Early 90s Predictions” database.