A year ago, the so-called information highway was golden. Today, it's tarnished. So much has been written and said about its promise that a backlash was inevitable. Criticism has been mounting since spring.
The Internet, today's incarnation of the info-highway, is easy to bash. It has its shortcomings and its dark side. As a skeptic, I usually applaud efforts to puncture the hype surrounding new technologies. This time, I'm not cheering. The critics are off-base.
One of the most vocal naysayers has been the United States Senate. Last month, shocked at the Internet's easily available pornography, it rushed through anti-smut legislation so broad it is probably unconstitutional. The House takes up the measure this month.
Another critic, technology analyst George Colony, has focused on the graphical part of the Internet, the World Wide Web. He pooh-poohs the system, saying ''The Web is Dead,'' because it is not very interactive.
All this comes on the heels of the most serious Internet indictment of all: Clifford Stoll's new book, ''Silicon Snake Oil.'' Its main premise (as if you hadn't already guessed) is that the Internet is not all it's cracked up to be and may be degrading our society.
He writes: ''Our networks can be frustrating, expensive, unreliable connections that get in the way of useful work. It is an overpromoted, hollow world, devoid of warmth and human kindness. The heavily promoted information infrastructure addresses few social needs or business concerns. At the same time, it directly threatens precious parts of our society, including schools, libraries, and social institutions. No birds sing. For all the promises of virtual communities, it's more important to live a real life in a real neighborhood.''
Mr. Stoll knows his subject. He's a longtime Internet user, a computer-security expert, and author of a bestseller about tracking down a German spy ring using the Internet. He is on the mark when he suggests libraries and schools, in their rush to get on-line, may be wasting dollars that could be better spent elsewhere.
But most of his book is less enlightening. It reads more like a 30-year-old critique of television than an up-to-date look at a still- evolving technology. Yes, children are better off fording streams than surfing the Internet. Who can argue with that? But parents' options are rarely so clear-cut. Children often can't or won't go outside. If the choice is TV, Nintendo, or Internet, I'd pick Internet. It's less passive than TV and more enriching than Nintendo.
Fresher insights come from critics of the Internet's World Wide Web. ''We're hovering on the cusp of a fundamental shift,'' says Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future. The Web only allows people to interact with information. ''What people really want is to interact with other people.'' Mr. Colony calls this future the World Transactional Web, a place where two-way information flows much more easily than over today's Web.
I agree. Interactive telephone conversations and even, jerkily, two-way video transmissions are starting to take place on the Internet. But I'm hard-pressed to call today's Web ''dead,'' as Colony does. It's growing rapidly. An InfoWorld survey published in June found that 20 percent of businesses surveyed had already established a site on the Web; another 29 percent expected to have one within the next 18 months.
Perhaps the lesson here is that powerful technologies engender powerful backlashes. Witness the decades-long bashing of television. The Internet is repeating this pattern. The recent spate of criticism does not foreshadow the Internet's decline. Rather, it's a sign that the medium, for all its faults, has become too powerful to ignore.
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The Internet, today's incarnation of the info-highway, is easy to bash. It has its shortcomings and its dark side.... But the critics are off-base.