Donald Trump is only the latest crazy internet pundit

Sometimes at this time of year, a toxic mixture of alcohol and cold cure medicines can lead to some trippy thoughts. I think I first heard about Donald Trump’s plans to ask Bill Gates for help in shutting down the internet on the radio while snoozing. That was a weird dream, I thought – no dream as it turned out.

Trump makes Ronald Reagan sound like Socrates but he’s not the only person to have some crazy ideas about what should be done with the internet. And not all the internet predictions were by the ill-informed. Bob Metcalfe, the creator of Ethernet no less, forecast back in 1995 that the internet would fall over due to a bandwidth crunch the following year.

“I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse,” Metcalfe wrote in an InfoWorld column.

The internet remains pretty resilient, despite the rich media and content explosion that makes today’s web very different to the text-and-GIFs version of the mid-1990s. Metcalfe, to his eternal credit, literally ate his words after blending his article with water. (And decades later, Metcalfe told me that this was a publicity stunt.)

Another pundit, Clifford Stoll, wrote an infamous 1995 article for Newsweek that was remarkable for its wrongheadedness. Among the highlights:

“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. And the freedom of digital networks will make government more democratic. 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.”

Actually, we can’t stop there; Stoll had more gold…

“Then there’s cyberbusiness. We’re promised instant catalog shopping–just point and click for great deals. We’ll order airline tickets over the network, make restaurant reservations and negotiate sales contracts. Stores will become obsolete. So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire internet handles in a month? Even if there were a trustworthy way to send money over the internet–which there isn’t–the network is missing a most essential ingredient of capitalism: salespeople.”

The internet investor Mark Cuban has had several hits but his opinion that YouTube’s battles with copyright video should deter Google from buying the site looks a bit old school today.

“Would Google be crazy to buy YouTube,” Cuban wrote on his blog. “No doubt about it. Moronic would be an understatement of a lifetime.”

Of course, duff tech predictions are not confined to the internet. DEC’s Ken Olsen famously opined that “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.”

Then there was the obscure FCC commissioner who thought that “There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States.”

And Michael Dell might want to rethink his famous words on what Steve Jobs should do with Apple (close it down and return cash to shareholders).

Other tech predictions have been wrong of course even though some are of dubious provenance. Did Bill Gates really say that nobody would need more than 640 kilobytes of RAM in a computer? Did Thomas Watson predict a global computer market of six?

Well, this ‘predicting what’s going to happen’ stuff is prone to the occasional error and even your correspondent has made the odd error such as saying that Amazon’s Kindle wouldn’t sell. At least in hindsight we can all be geniuses – and even when we’re wrong, we’re not as wrong as the man who wants to be the next President of the United States.


Also read:

Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe still rings the changes

What will be hot and not in 2015


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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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