Back to the Internet’s Future

Back when the Internet was still known as the “Information Superhighway,” many pundits predicted that “interactivity” would soon change the way everyday people live.

Although nobody believed that what was going to happen between a computer and a person in cyberspace would be more interactive than what happens between human beings, the Information Superhighway promised to bring the experience of cyberspace incredibly close to real life.

Looking back now, the question is, did it?

Blast From the Past

Seven years ago, Newsweek took a look at the potential for interactivity in the Digital Age in an article titled “An Interactive Life.” The report said, “The ultimate promise is this: a huge amount of information will be available to anyone at the touch of a button, everything from airline schedules to esoteric scientific journals to video versions of off-off-off Broadway.”

Newsweek also predicted that in the near future, “the era of the no-brainer will have finally arrived. An electronic device called an ‘intelligent agent’ will be programmed to know each viewer’s preferences and make selections from a endless stream of data.”

With seven years of water gone under the bridge, I am reminded of the elusive dream of “that little man behind the curtain” who owned and operated the Great Oz. He wanted to create so accurate and wonderful an illusion of a fire-breathing wizard that Dorothy would never realize Oz was not a real person.

Well, fast forward to 2000: the Information Superhighway is not even close to approximating the interactivity of real life. The Web has not reached that goal — and probably never will.

Year 2001 Problem

The visionaries running today’s e-commerce powerhouses and global media conglomerates are facing some hard facts. Machines are not going to replace people when it comes to customer service. And, virtual reality with goggles is never going to be as exciting as surfing the Playa Hermosa break in pristine Costa Rica.

After all, when Joe Visitor visits an online book retailer, the page says, “We have book recommendations for you,” but Joe no longer cares about those books. Joe has different hobbies and interests now, and an electronic agent will never be able to figure out what Joe wants unless he is able to speak with a live human being.

At least the virtual salespeople at Amazon.com are willing to admit confusion about Joe’s preferences, quietly protesting “Based on your purchases, we’re still not sure of your tastes.”

Target Practice

If Joe fills out enough registration forms, of course, the Internet will know everything about Joe. After spilling all his beans — and picking up a few “cookies” — Joe will get targeted e-mails, customized page views, and even banner ads that reflect his personal preferences.

Nice, but not all that interactive. Joe can only choose from a limited number of common interests. “Modern igloo design” is not on the list. Even if it were one of the choices, the computer wouldn’t know Joe is interested unless he checks the box. From then on, the computer will spew tangentially related sales offers at Joe, even if way off topic. Intrusive, but not that interactive.

Interactivity’s worst-case scenario is when the computer thinks Joe needs something he doesn’t need. Just think of that paper clip-shaped Microsoft Word “office assistant” that is always asking if Joe wants to write a letter.

If that’s the wave of the future, we are heading for a rendezvous with the maniacal computer HAL from the movie “2001.” When HAL didn’t get it, HAL really didn’t get it.

Era of the No-Brainer

This summer, interested voters with the latest hardware and software will be able to pick the angle of video cameras covering the political party conventions. Unfortunately, setting the angle of Web camera covering an entirely orchestrated made-for-TV event means that we have, indeed, reached “the era of the no-brainer.” If Joe Visitor wants to take an active part in politics, the Web is not the way.

Online auctions are interactive, right? People can search for what they want and bid against people from all around the world, while the computer plays the part of auctioneer. However, many online auction customers are complaining about last-minute bids from people who weren’t part of the auction until the very end. There is no “going, going, gone” in a timed Internet auction, while at a real-world auction, everyone gets an opportunity to make a final bid.

How about online gambling? Not only can Joe Visitor play video poker, he can watch horse races in real time via streaming video, word search through racing statistics, and place actual bets. He’s virtually at the Belmont Stakes, even though he’s really in his living room. Of course, phoning in a bet while watching TV is just as interactive, and that was possible in 1950.

Cyberspace Odyssey

The electronic agent that knows everything about Joe Visitor and takes him on a fanastic journey through cyberspace has not arrived. Because of the fundamental difference between man and machine, the interactive robot promised seven years ago is not likely to materialize.

But that’s okay. We have seen the ghost of Internet Future, and although things are not as interactive as was once hoped, we have settled down to enjoy the Internet for what it is: a spectacular way to communicate and do business.

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