1995: The Year the Future Began

1995: The Year the Future Began

by W. Joseph Campbell

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520273993
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 01/02/2015
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 870,149
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

W. Joseph Campbell is Professor in the School of Communication at American University. He is the author of five other nonfiction books, including Getting It Wrong: Ten of the Greatest Misreported Stories in American Journalism (UC Press, 2010).

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1995

The Year the Future Began


By W. Joseph Campbell

UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS

Copyright © 2015 W. Joseph Campbell
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95971-2



CHAPTER 1

The Year of the Internet


The novelty days of the World Wide Web tend to be recalled in sharply different ways. One way is to remember them wistfully, as an innocent time when browsing came into fashion, when the still-new Web offered serendipity, mystery, and the whiff of adventure. The prominent technology skeptic Evgeny Morozov gave expression to early-Web nostalgia in a lush essay a few years ago that lamented the passing of cyberflânerie, the pleasure of wandering leisurely online without knowing where one would go or what one might find. He wrote that those days of slowly loading Web pages and "the funky buzz of the modem" offered "their own weird poetics" and the promise of "opening new spaces for play and interpretation."

Far more common than gauzy nostalgia is to look back at the early Web with bemusement and sarcasm, to liken the emergent online world of the mid-1990s to a primordial place, when the environment of the Web was mostly barren and boring, not a place to linger, not a place to do much at all. The "Jurassic Web," Farhad Manjoo called it, in an essay posted at Slate.com. What's "striking about the old Web," he wrote, "is how unsure everyone seemed to be about what the new medium was for."

Fair enough. The Internet of 1995 was a place without Facebook, Twitter, or Wikipedia. Google was barely on the horizon: its founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, were graduate students who met in 1995 on the campus of Stanford University. Their mutual first reaction was that the other was pretty obnoxious. The Google of the early Web was the Alta Vista search engine, which claimed to be able to access eight billion words on sixteen million websites. Commercial online services such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy were prospering then, offering an online experience that mostly was segregated, circumscribed, and walled-off to nonsubscribers. By digital reckoning, 1995 was a long time ago—a time before Smartphones, social media, and ubiquitous wireless connections. Even enthusiasts acknowledged that navigating the Internet in 1995 demanded as much patience as know-how. Surfing the Web then was likened to "a journey to a rugged, exotic destination—the pleasures are exquisite, but you need some stamina."

But to look back and smirk at the primitive character of the online experience, to snicker at the "Jurassic Web," is to miss the dynamism and to overlook the extraordinary developments that took place online in 1995. It was a time when the Internet and its World Wide Web showcase went, in the words of Vinton G. Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet, "from near-invisibility to near-ubiquity." "World Wide Web" was the word of the year, the American Dialect Society declared. Nineteen ninety-five was when the Internet and the World Wide Web moved from the obscure realm of technophiles and academic researchers to become a household word, the year when the Web went from vague and distant curiosity to a phenomenon that would change the way people work, shop, learn, communicate, and interact.

By the end of 1995, most Americans had at least heard about the Internet and vaguely understood that it was a worldwide network of interlinked computers. Everyone seemed to be paying at least some attention to the Internet, and many people could recognize a Web address when they saw one. Although a consciousness about the Internet had taken hold, most people in 1995 had yet to go online. At midyear, the Internet Society estimated that at least twenty million people but not more than forty million people were Internet users. More significantly, 1995 was the year of the emergence of notable entities and applications that shaped and helped define the online world. The year was a moment of innovation crucial to the character, content, and vitality of the World Wide Web.

Nineteen ninety-five saw the emergence of powerful if conflicting sentiments still associated with the Internet: a cocksure swagger encouraged by novelty; a promise of vast treasure to be found in the digital marketplace; and a spirit of collaboration and community that an online environment could uniquely promote. Those cross-cutting sentiments found expression in 1995 in the pretensions of Netscape, the California startup that made a breakthrough Web browser and, with its remarkable initial public offering of stock, catalyzed the dot.com boom of the second half of the 1990s. They found further expression in the quiet emergence of Amazon.com, which has become the Web's greatest commercial success story. And they found expression in the development of the unassuming wiki, the open-editing software that enables Web users to collaborate across distances. Netscape, Amazon, and the wiki, each in its way, testified to the Web's emergent dynamism in 1995; each will be discussed in some detail in this chapter.

To be sure, the digital innovations of 1995 went beyond Netscape, Amazon, and the wiki. Many mainstays of the online world date their emergence to that year. The predecessor to Craigslist.org began in 1995 as a free email listing for apartments, jobs, and the arts in San Francisco. Its founder, Craig Newmark, has called Craigslist "a happy accident" that is "passionate about the mundane and the boring." The online auction site eBay was launched in 1995 as AuctionWeb. Its founder, Pierre Omidyar, wrote the original code over Labor Day weekend while holed up at his home office in California. Omidyar was then twenty-eight years old; he became a billionaire three years later when eBay went public.

The online dating service Match.com got its start in 1995, and cyber-dating gained recognition as "more than just a passing whim." The New York Times made its first, top-dipping forays into the digital landscape in October 1995, posting reports at http://www.nytimes.com/pope about the visit to the United States of Pope John Paul II. The forerunner of Salon.com, an early venture into online news, was launched in San Francisco in 1995 as a weekly arts and literature "e-zine." Yahoo! was incorporated in 1995, a little more than a year after the Web directory went online. Yahoo! was the work of Stanford graduate students Jerry Yang and David Filo, who first called their directory "David and Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web."

Progressive Networks that year introduced its RealAudio technology, bringing streaming sound and live broadcasts to the Web. Sun Microsystems in 1995 unveiled Java, the programming language that helped awaken and animate the heretofore static world of the Web. Brendan Eich, then a programmer for Netscape, developed JavaScript, a powerful but fairly easy-to-use scripting language popular among Web designers and developers. The first version of Internet Explorer, Microsoft's anemic entry into the market of graphical Web browsers, became available in August 1995. In a few years, the successor versions of Explorer became the Web's dominant browser.

So what made 1995 so digitally fecund? Why were so many veins of innovation fruitfully tapped that year? A variety of factors converged to make the year so rich and exceptional. For one, the Web was still new but had moved beyond its infancy. Tim Berners-Lee, a British software engineer, had developed the Web's fundamental protocols by August 1991, and Mosaic, the first popular graphical Web browser, was available online less than two years later. Mosaic was a marvelous breakthrough; it was easy to install and easy to use, and it illuminated the Web for technophiles and early adopters. By 1995, moreover, computer use had crossed an important threshold: more than half of American adults were using computers at home, in school, or at work. And many new computers then were shipped with modems installed, encouraging access to the online world. Additionally, the growth of multifaceted, commercial online services such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy signaled emergent popular interest in going online, however circumscribed the experience might be. It was no major leap for subscribers to move directly to the Web and its promise of vast, unrestricted content.

The Web, moreover, came to be recognized as a barrier-lowering, micro-targeting platform that could facilitate connections otherwise difficult or impossible to achieve. To varying degrees, entities such as Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, and Match.com all seized on this capacity. They embraced the flexibility, versatility, and relative efficiency of the online world. Their founders recognized the Web's capacity to promote convenience and to foster, if loosely and temporally, a sense of connection among consumers across distances. The feedback option, notably promoted by Amazon, emerged as a confidence-building mechanism for online consumers.

The Internet in 1995 also became the topic of much gee-whiz attention from the news media—attention that had the effect of deepening curiosity about the Web and its potential. For sheer hyperbole, few characterizations exceeded Newsweek's cover story at the end of 1995. It had been "the Year of the Internet," Newsweek declared, adding: "Remember when surfing was something you did outdoors, in a bathing suit? That was 1994. Now it's what you do on the Internet—the worldwide network of computers that in 1995 was embraced as the medium that will change the way we communicate, shop, publish and ... be damned."

"You talk about revolution?" Newsweek went on. "For once, the shoe fits."

The Internet hype of 1995 was met by no small amount of scoffing and eye-rolling. Net skeptics and detractors were not especially hard to find. Some of them suggested the Internet was but a transient fad, perhaps a latter-day Citizen's Band radio, the short-range communications device that was popular for a while in the 1970s before lapsing into obscurity. Among the year's most prominent and often-quoted skeptics was Clifford Stoll, a forty-five-year-old astrophysicist with wild, thinning hair. Stoll had been online many years before 1995, when he brought out Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, a scattershot and sometimes-crabby book that offered a head-on challenge to Internet euphoria. Twenty years on, Silicon Snake Oil remains entertaining—if mostly for its jaw-dropping collection of off-target projections. Here is a notable sampling:

I don't believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance.

I suspect Big Brother won't have an easy time tracing us.... Our privacy will be protected, as it always has been, by simple obscurity and the high cost of uncovering information about us.

What will the electronic book look like? Some sort of miniature laptop computer, I'd guess. We'll download selections and page through them electronically. Try reading electronic books. They're awful.

Video-on-demand, that killer application of communications, will remain a dream.

It's easy to make fancy home pages on the World Wide Web. But jumping from one document to another baffles me even more than watching someone channel surf. I'm never certain of my location in a twisty maze of cross-references.

Why not send a fax? It's far more universal than e-mail—we not only find fax machines everywhere, but they can all speak to one another.... I find it easier [than e-mail] to just scribble a note on a plain piece of paper and send it over a fax. Or address an envelope, lick a stamp, and mail the letter.


Stoll's predictions and observations can be scoffed at as naive and shortsighted. That is easy to do. They also can be recognized as a baseline for understanding what a robust place cyberspace was becoming twenty years ago. Although Stoll clearly misjudged the Internet's dynamism and potential to produce innovations, it was not as if he were a neo-Luddite. "I have a half-dozen computers in my home," he told an interviewer in 1995. "I have no shortage of e-mail addresses."

A preview of Stoll's book appeared in Newsweek in February 1995, beneath the memorable headline "The Internet? Bah!" More so than his book, Stoll's commentary has achieved something approaching cult-like status online. The essay is constantly to be rediscovered online, gaining fresh life and circulation on platforms such as Twitter. Although not especially prominently, Stoll has acknowledged the shortcomings of his predictions in 1995. "Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers," he wrote in a discussion forum on BoingBoing.net in 2010, "few have been as public as my 1995 howler. Wrong? Yep." He added: "Now, whenever I think I know what's happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff ..."

Nearly as stunning as Stoll's misguided prophesies was Bob Metcalfe's bizarre prediction that "the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse," leaving behind "only World Wide Web ghost pages." Metcalfe was the multimillionaire inventor of Ethernet technology and founder of 3Com Corporation. He also was publisher of InfoWorld, where his "supernova" prediction appeared in December 1995. In his column, Metcalfe wrote that a number of factors would bring about the Internet's spectacular collapse, including security breaches that would send many Internet sites to the safety of firewalls and intranets. In a follow-up commentary, Metcalfe upped the stakes by promising to eat his Internet-collapse column should the "supernova" prediction prove wrong.

It proved wrong, of course, and in what Wired magazine described as "highly theatrical public penance," Metcalfe made good on his pledge to eat his column. He took the stage in April 1997 at an international World Wide Web conference in Santa Clara, California, and acknowledged that the Internet "supernova" had not occurred. Metcalfe put to a voice vote the question of his eating the column; the response was overwhelming. "Eat, baby, eat," conference-goers shouted. Metcalfe then wheeled onto the stage a large cake decorated to look like his misguided InfoWorld column. He proposed to eat a large slice of the cake instead—a suggestion greeted by much booing. Metcalfe relented. He ripped his wrong-headed column from InfoWorld, tore it into shreds, and sprinkled the remains into an electric blender containing a bit of water. The blender whirred, producing a milky, pulpy substance. To cheers from the audience, Metcalfe ladled the goop into a bowl and slurped it down. It was, he later boasted, his "greatest publicity stunt of all time." Before taking the stage at Santa Clara, Metcalfe had assured himself that the InfoWorld ink was not toxic.

More common than expansive and spectacularly wrong predictions was the tentativeness that attached to the emergent online world of 1995, a tentativeness that nowadays seems quaint and droll. This was evident in phrases devised by journalists to describe the Web and explain its novelty. The phrases were not wrong necessarily, but they clearly were cautious and uncertain, as if the journalists were grabbing in the dark. After all, the vernacular for talking about the online world was still evolving in 1995. As the year began, the New York Times described the Web as "a section of the Internet overflowing with sights and sounds." Not long afterward, a Times writer referred to the Web as "an electronic amalgam of the public library, the suburban shopping mall and the Congressional Record." In February 1995, a wire service report called the Web "a string of data bases available through the global maze of computer networks known as the Internet."

Near the end of the year, the New York Times declared the Web had become "a full-fledged media star, hailed and hyped, part technology and part fashion accessory." About that time, a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the "fascination with the World Wide Web" described it as "an electronic publishing service for pictures, sound and video, as well as text." Earlier in the year, the Inquirer had introduced the Web to its readers by asking: "What do O. J. Simpson, the Louvre, an Australian guy called Wigs, prostitution, the Franklin Institute and a coffeepot in England have in common? Maybe nothing, except that they are all on the Web—the World Wide Web—a multimedia digital universe probably appearing on a computer screen near you." And Newsweek's effervescent year-end cover story hailing 1995 as "the year of the Internet" described the Web as "an awesome construct where the publishing efforts of thousands of people are interlinked into a massive seething monument to human expression, enabling everything from shopping for a new car to keeping track of Madonna's biological clock."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from 1995 by W. Joseph Campbell. Copyright © 2015 W. Joseph Campbell. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Preface
Acknowledgments

Introduction to an Improbable Year
1 • The Year of the Internet
2 • Terror in the Heartland, and a Wary America
3 • O.J., DNA, and the “Trial of the Century”
4 • Peace at Dayton and the “Hubris Bubble”
5 • Clinton Meets Lewinsky
Conclusion: The Long Reach of 1995
The Timeline of a Watershed Year: 1995
Notes
Select Bibliography

Index

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