A Ghost of Christmas Past shows the folly of dismissing tech trends

In this Searchlight: a cautionary tale about dismissing tech trends. Plus, Target in hackers' crosshairs, cyber currency mints new star, and more.

Karen GoulartKaren Goulart

It's that time of year again -- sharing good cheer with family and friends … and being assaulted by the inevitable year-end retrospectives and look-ahead tech trend predictions.

In the spirit of all this gleeful prognosticating, this week's lead Searchlight story comes to you from … 1995.  The piece was written for Newsweek (R.I.P.) as a counterpoint of sorts to all the gaga predictions about the coming greatness of this thing called the Internet. Nearly two score later, it serves as a reminder that (to paraphrase the great Yogi Berra) predicting the future is hard to do and dismissing an imagined future out of hand isn't smart.

The fact that the story was penned by a very intelligent man -- Clifford Stoll, astronomer and renowned hacker tracker -- can't be overlooked. Not because it makes it funnier, but because it goes to show that even the smartest folks make mistakes. E-commerce? Never gonna happen! Telecommuting workers and virtual classrooms? Pish and posh. Search engines? Useless at finding the information you really need. (Hard to blame him there, if you remember search in 1995.)

He saw the Internet as a "wasteland of unfiltered data." Which of course today has only expanded exponentially into a landscape of potential -- the black gold we call big data.

Like so many news items, I discovered this story by way of Twitter where it is getting a mini viral revival -- quite appropriate to the theme here, don't you think? Stoll also dismissed the notion of the Internet replacing newspapers.

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A little digging showed this story has been passed around from time to time, pulled apart and mocked for its stubborn Luddite (in light of what we now know) stance. In 2010, Stoll himself popped up on a lengthy comment section back-and-forth, acknowledging this "howler" of a public flub. But more important, "Now, whenever I think I know what's happening, I temper my thoughts: [You] Might be wrong, Cliff… " Good for him. (Dickens would applaud.)

Plus the mockers should also give credit where credit is due to the Internet-scoffing astronomer. In some respects, his diatribe was painfully correct. To wit: that "computers and networks" will isolate us from each other, replacing human interaction. He anticipated the often vulgar cacophony of comment sections: "Every voice can be heard cheaply and instantly. The result? Every voice is heard. The cacophony more closely resembles citizens band radio, complete with handles, harassment and anonymous threats. When most everyone shouts, few listen."

Unlike CIOs, Stoll wasn't in charge of decision making for any IT organizations or businesses -- no harm, no foul in guessing wrong on the Internet. The stakes are higher for you.

So let me play your Ghost of Christmas Present: You, CIO leader, don't have the luxury of dismissing technology-- no matter how crude it looks to you today. When you pick up your tablet to read about the 2014 tech trend predictions from your favorite newspaper or magazine, do it with a skeptical eye but an open mind. And for the sake of peace and goodwill, please don't read the comment sections.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.

This was first published in December 2013

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