In this Newsweek article from 1995, Clifford Stoll suggested it would be unlikely we’d buy books over the web or read newspapers online.
But he didn’t stop there. He didn’t think internet shopping would work because the internet was missing salespeople:
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 obselete. 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.
Anyway, 1995 was definitely the early days. Plenty of predictions were wrong. Who knew what was going to happen. We can’t fault him for having an opinion.
But reading his opinion today does highlight just how far we’ve come in such a short time. Just about everything in his piece — from news to shopping to government — has been fundamentally changed by the web. What he thought wouldn’t work has actually worked so well that it’s hard to imagine our lives without it.
Further, his article shines a light on the burden of assumptions. Stoll assumed one of the reasons online shopping would fail was because it lacked salespeople. That was an assumption tied to his present day experience; a person had to sell you something.
How much of what you say can’t change is tied to your present day assumptions? “We can’t do that in our business” or “That would never work here” or “We have to have that” or “We need this in order to do that” or “That’s just how its done.”
Vision is about demolishing today’s assumptions and recognizing that new things are possible. It takes real guts to fight for the side of the non-obvious.
It also reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by Daniel Burnham. I usually just excerpt the first part of this quote, but in this case the end is what’s relevant:
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty. Think big.
As far as the internet goes, we didn’t have to wait for our sons and grandsons to surprise us. We surprised ourselves.
On the bright side, it seems Clifford has come around. He sells Klein Bottles over the web. Curiously, doesn’t it look like his site was designed in 1995?