Predicting the Internet—How Wrong Were They?

Updated on April 10, 2020
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Timothy Arends is a writer, graphic artist, and technology maven.

There’s a good thing about holding onto stuff for a long time: it eventually achieves nostalgic value due to sheer age. This happened with a copy of Yahoo! Internet Life that I recently rediscovered while looking through stacks of old magazines at home.

Wikipedia informs us that Yahoo! and Yahoo! Internet Life were not directly connected with each other, but the fact that the magazine borrowed the search engine’s name implies a certain degree of approval and authority by the website over what appeared in the magazine.

This particular issue of the magazine was especially interesting, because it appeared in December 1999, exactly 20 years ago as of this writing, and it attempted to predict the future of the Internet. The cover blared “What’s Next for the Web? 2000 and Beyond.”

It’s a big magazine of over 278 pages and nearly half the magazine was devoted to predictions about the Internet. In other words, the feature was nearly book-length, so you might consider this a book review.

It’s always fun to see how predictions of the future pan out, so now that we have 20 years of hindsight, let’s see what the magazine got right and wrong in it’s predictions.

Source

Science-Fiction Writer Roundtable

The magazine starts out with an interview, a sort of “roundtable“ of several science fiction writers. It says “There’s one sure way to make great science fiction writers blow a gasket...ask them to predict the future.“ But predict the future they did, or at least they attempted to.

Unfortunately, their predictions struck a dubious note almost immediately. One participant credited the Internet with “eventually helping to keep governments honest.“ I wonder if he would say the same thing today in this era of supposed “fake news,“ Russian collusion, social media “hate speech,“ and Internet memes?

The participants were right about some things, however. One credited (or blamed) the Internet with “Higher rates of obesity. Increases in education levels in rural and Third World areas. Translation programs [that] allow anyone to talk to anyone. The complete taking for granted of the Internet, such that no one thinks of it anymore.”

Unfortunately, other predictions, such as “cures for some diseases we never thought possible (the common cold, for one)“ and “staggering advantages in genetic engineering“ haven’t panned out just yet.

Overall grade: C+

Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine. Let's Have A Look!

Interview with Vinton Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee

Vinton Cerf was the principal scientist at DARPA,the government agency that originated the Internet back in the 1960s. Tim Berners-Lee wrote a program that could carry text, graphics and other information, which was adapted by others to become the World Wide Web.

Cerf, while admitting he had no idea how big the Internet would eventually become, had pushed early on for it to allow commercial activity. He was prescient when he said “there’s no reason why devices we already wear — pagers, cell phones, even Sony Walkmans — won’t be Internet enabled.” Sounds like a prediction of the first iPods and iPhones.

The accuracy of Tim Berners-Lee‘s predictions were mixed. He predicted widespread use of digital signatures and online micropayments which still aren’t in common use today. Most strikingly, he said “I’ve always viewed the web as a tool for democracy and peace.“

In contrast, recently, he has said he is “horrified“ by what the web has become and that it is “not serving humanity.“ Whether you agree with his earlier statement or his later one, his own assessment of his prescience doesn’t seem to be a good one.

Overall grade: Vinton Cerf: A, Tim Berners-Lee: D-

The Internet and Politics

This is a category in which Yahoo! Internet Life really dropped the ball! (Or should I say the modem?) Not only did they fail to see many future developments, but their whole philosophy was dramatically different from that which the establishment and media seem to have today towards the Internet.

A typical quote from the article: “There’s no evidence that the Internet is a threat to public safety and welfare, or that the occasional — and generally horrifying — Net predator is a common phenomenon. Washington politicians really look out of touch when they try to exploit fear of new media technologies.” What a contrast to today’s “fake news“ near-hysteria!

Further, the magazine goes on to say, “America doesn’t need to be protected from the ‘Net. It needs universal access to it, and some intelligent discussion about how to harness the most transformative technology of the century for the civic good.”

The magazine cited a joint 1997 Wired magazine and Merrill Lynch study that found that “[Wired Americans] resist labels like Republican and Democrat or liberal and conservative; they regard issues one by one, rather than invoking ideological affiliation.“ Doesn’t sound like a very good description of today’s era in which party and ideological affiliation seem to have become more important than ever.

It goes on to say, ”A Net-savvy politician... would trumpet the Net as a boon to research, a liberator of information, a spur to community building, a new form of communication, a landmark evolution of participatory democracy envisioned by Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson.”

What enthusiasm there was for the Internet back then! I wish we had optimism like that nowadays. The rest of the article seems to be primarily concerned that not enough politicians had interactive websites at the time of the writing!

What they missed: Social media, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, online outrage mobs, social justice warriors, increased partisanship, tech monopolies, “hate speech,“ deplatforming,“ shadow banning,“ alternative media, establishment media backlash, smart phone activism, memes

Overall grade: C-

Tucker: Big tech has launched an attack on your rights

Law and the Internet

Law professor Alan Dershowitz wrote an essay in which he lamented how the Internet could link “hate groups“ and how hard it is to police the Internet because “different countries have different rules regarding what constitutes protected speech.”

Overall grade: B-

Criminal Justice

“The next decade‘s high-profile murder cases will be played out on a website near you“ The writers seemed to think that interactive websites would allow the general public to follow high-profile court cases online. Sorry, this one was just flat-out wrong.

Overall grade: F

Education

A sidebar noted that many colleges and universities were already offering distance learning courses in 1999. It predicted videoconferencing closed-circuit systems would lead to the “first online graduation ceremony” and that online learning would “revolutionize” vocational training. It quoted an education researcher who dubiously claimed that educational funding had been cut over the years and who voiced fears that schools of the future might be “filled with kids staring at screens, staffed by security guards.”

What they missed: K-12 schools seem to have been the most resistant of all to technological change. True, computer courses are required at all schools, but the use of computers has not filtered overall into the classroom, with most studies still being conducted with good old-fashioned books, paper and pencils. The biggest change is in the number of students who effectively carry a supercomputer in their pockets (otherwise known as a smartphone), something not directly connected with the schools themselves.

Overall grade: C

Medicine

“By 2007, your entire medical history, including the sequence of your genome, will be stored on a data card in your wallet, or in a bracelet on your wrist, or in a chip in your earlobe.”

The writers thought that telemedicine would be far more common by now than it actually is. However, they were pretty close when they predicted computer-aided surgery, image guided surgery and robotically assisted surgery (in fact, these existed at the time of the writing with even journals devoted to the subject already being published). The human genome project was also about to be completed at that time.

What we have in 2019: Better computerization of doctor and hospital records, the ability to consult our medical charts online, robotically assisted surgery, widespread genetic testing.

Overall grade: C+

Finance

“What’s Next for the Web?” interviewed investment guru James J. Cramer on how the Internet might affect investing and stock trading. His predictions were pretty accurate. He predicted that dot-coms would be viewed in the future more as companies than as websites, that newspapers would fade as sources of investment information and that websites such as E*TRADE were not about to replace brokers anytime soon.

Overall grade: A

Online Marketing

“What’s Next for the Web?” predicted big changes in how we buy stuff online. The article “Your Web, or Theirs?“ predicted that by the year 2010 traditional shopping would be practically obsolete with frequent buyer plans taking its place. (The closest thing we have to this in 2019 is Amazon Prime.) The article also envisioned that our automobiles, televisions, ovens, and grocery carts would be spying on us in exchange for discounts on favorite items.

The reality is, online shopping has not changed that much in the last 20 years, with the exception of more movies, movie rentals and music being purchased online, and Amazon gaining a near monopoly in many consumer categories. But, we still have banner ads, browser cookies, credit card payments, and online shopping carts just like we had in 1999.

Overall grade: C-

Internet Censorship and Banning Hate Speech

Media

Unlike in many other categories, the magazine didn’t envision big changes in the way media content would be delivered to consumers in the future. The magazine attributed this expected stagnation to the “portability factor,” obviously failing to take into consideration the rise of portable reading devices like tablet computers, e-readers and smartphones. It’s not too surprising, however, that a magazine would fail to predict its own industry’s eventual obsolescence.

The issue also mentioned customizable “portal pages” that allow readers to put all their favorite news sources in one place, but such pages fell out of favor long ago, having been primarily replaced by social media.

Overall grade: D

Censorship

Censorship was a hot topic back in 1999, just as it is in 2019, only then, it was porn that was under consideration for censorship rather than political content, as is the case today.

There was a political movement and debate in the 1990s about how to block pornographic websites, which were easily accessible to children. “What’s Next for the Web” was foursquare against any kind of censorship, instead discussing how to regulate access to certain websites with a rating system similar to that used for movies and video games.

The magazine asked, “Is regulation of the Internet possible at all?“ And concluded that the answer was “no,” citing the “decentralized and anarchic architecture of the Net that can now take advantage of cheap desktop computers.” The conclusion was that anyone could put anything online and that no one could stop them for long.

This is not considered to be the case today, as calls for censorship are being increasingly directed towards political content online rather than pornography.

Today, it is recognized that the Internet can indeed be censored. Content creators can be jailed or deplatformed and their servers can be shut down. They can lose access to their social media accounts, web hosts and payment processors. Indeed, there is a big discussion now about censorship by social media companies, with the leaders of Twitter, Facebook and others appearing before Congress and being charged with unfair application of their rules and codes of conduct to people of different political persuasions.

Interestingly, the issue of Yahoo! Internet Life had nothing to say about political censorship on the web, apparently not even conceiving of the possibility that it could ever happen. How times have changed.

Overall grade: D-

Movies and Television

The magazine did a good job predicting how the Internet would affect entertainment. It correctly predicted that pirated films circulated online would not be a major problem for the movie studios (this is true at least in the US; overseas it may be another matter). The magazine correctly predicted the eventual transition of movie theaters from film to digital.

It predicted that independent filmmakers would continue to have problems selling their films in a glutted marketplace. It also correctly predicted that the Internet would not result in the immediate demise of movie theaters, since people tend to enjoy the “communal“ experience of watching films together. The biggest Internet related change it foresaw for the film industry was in marketing and how new movie releases are promoted.

The magazine missed the mark a little in predicting the rise of “interactive” television but it correctly predicted increased TV viewership on both very large and very small screens, such as on handheld devices. It also correctly predicted the eventual increase in bandwidth.

Overall grade: A

How Napster Changed The Music Industry

Music

“What’s Next for the Web” correctly predicted the rise of subscription services in which people would pay a monthly fee to listen to music. Composer Philip Glass in an interview opined that the Internet would pave the way for indie artists to sell a significant amount of music independently of the big record labels. From my limited knowledge, it seems that the Internet in 2019 has failed to open the opportunities for indie artists that were once anticipated, but perhaps some of them are seeing success through Facebook and other social media sites. However, Apple Music and other big vendors seem to be gaining a near monopolistic lock on the greater amount of music distribution these days.

Overall grade: B-

Books and Literature

E-books and handheld devices on which they might be read had already made an appearance by the time of the December 1999 issue of Yahoo!! Internet Life. Still, the magazine did not predict the immediate overthrow of printed books, correctly expecting the two formats to exist simultaneously for “decades” to come.

Since it was written in the early days of the multimedia era, the article also predicted that “literary artists will be obliged to… team up with graphic artists and designers, photographers, composers, actors, animators, and the like.”

“Hypertextuality, multimedia, text animation, computer games, virtual reality, streaming sound and video, etc., have already had a massive impact on electronic literature, and this will continue at an undoubtedly accelerated pace.” However, today, aside from children’s books, most books, whether electronic or physical, still consist of primarily text.

What they missed: The rise of audiobooks and the decline of bookstores. Also the near monopolistic lock of Amazon on electronic publishing and a disturbing trend towards book banning and censorship.

Overall grade: C-

Pornography

The magazine interviewed an “erotica expert,“ so it is not hard to imagine the viewpoint it took towards online pornography, which it saw in 20 years as “yet another triumph of American marketing.“ It also predicted an increase in women who are intensely interested in pornography (news to me) and so-called “rubbernecking pornography,“ a class of web surfers who aren’t themselves fetishists but are amused by the idea of fetishists” (also news to me).

The article concluded that “critics of the Net want regulation, of course. They shouldn’t get it.“ Ironically, it failed to foresee that the real focus of online censorship in 20 years would not be towards pornography but towards political speech (probably the type of speech the framers of the Constitution most had in mind when enacting the first amendment).

Overall grade: F

Do Video Games Make You Violent?

Video Games

At the time “What’s Next for the Web” was published in December 1999, the video game industry was already larger than the film industry. However, the magazine brought up school shootings, such as in Littleton, Colorado and Paducah, Kentucky, in which a boy who had “never picked up a gun” managed 100% accuracy in his shooting, implying that he got his training from playing violent video games.

The magazine quoted the author of the book Megatrends, who claimed that “we have an electronic culture of violence” (ironically, his own book had failed to foresee the rise of video games). The magazine predicted that the “crusade against violent video games” and their “desensitizing” effect would likely lead to a “resurgence of simpler entertainment” such as electronic versions of backgammon, chess and bridge. The magazine also predicted a rise in online gambling.

What amazes me is that the magazine linked video games but not pornography to real life violence, ignoring the violence that pervades erotica, which critics charge often leads to real-life rape and other crimes. Apparently, the magazine was against censorship of pornography but in favor of censorship of video games.

What it missed: The rise of phone, tablet and mobile games, online multiplayer games.

Overall grade: F

Society and Identity

Next, Yahoo! Internet Life concerned itself with how the Internet might police itself. It brought up as an example the body’s immune system, which “throngs with semi independent agents” and contrasted this with dictatorial human societies that attempt to enforce order through a top-down system of enforcement.

The article cited as traits of effective self enforcement such things as “distrust of some (or all) authority” and “utter dependence on freedom of speech.” It also argued that areas of effective discussion—a million chat rooms and Usenet discussion groups not withstanding—were lacking on the Internet and concluded that “we are plunging toward a future beyond all our powers to predict.”

I would agree with that last statement. In fact, some of the things the writer failed to predict were the breakdown of the mainstream media, the rise of YouTube and other video sites, social media and “social justice warriors,” and increased calls for censorship online.

Overall grade: C

The Workplace

A brief sidebar article on the workplace pointed out that, although promised for many years, the virtual office “hasn’t quite materialized, in part because of resistance to telecommuting on the part of workers and managers alike.” Still, the Internet had affected office life by that time, with disputes over employees’ use of web surfing while they were supposed to be working and the personal use of office email systems. It also cited estimates by researchers that “40% of US workers could be home-based by 2020.” In reality, the workplace situation doesn’t seem to have changed very much since 1999 (the “paperless office” hasn’t arrived yet, either).

Overall grade: B

Online Socializing

In an article about the Internet’s impact on loneliness and socialization, the writer says that “We don’t trust others... worse, meeting them, fumbling for something to say that doesn’t embarrass them or ourselves, is excruciating and to be avoided.“ He points out that most of the people we do get to know are thrust upon us more or less randomly, such as by being coworkers or classmates.

The writer expected the Internet to change all this—that Internet portals would become so powerful that we would be able to fine-tune exactly what we want to say to exactly who we want to say it. He also expected that powerful filters would allow us to “keep out all the creeps“ and control precisely whose communications we received.

Ironically, today the big controversy is about social media monopolies, such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, enacting heavy-handed censorship that determines who is and is not able to participate, rather than giving users powerful and flexible tools to make such decisions for themselves.

Overall grade: C-

Dell Dimension Computer Commercial (1999)

Home Gadgets

A picture feature of expected future technological devices showed such things as a wireless interactive food tray, door handles with built-in fingerprint identifiers, a health monitoring toilet, an Internet-connected bathroom mirror, a computer inside an ottoman for the living room, music systems that detect which room of the house you’re in and play music only in that room, and “adaptive houses” that learn the habits of their dwellers. One of the few things it got right was a wireless tablet for the kitchen that connects to online recipe databases.

What it missed: Voice-activated assistants such as Amazon Echo, the rise of ubiquitous smartphones, Nest home thermostat and other “smart home“ devices.

Overall grade: D

Online Dating

The magazine predicted the rise of “dating hubs“ in which people would not only find dates but participate in dates online as well, even getting married without having met one’s partner in person. It also predicted that entrepreneurs would offer ordinary people “virtual dates“ with celebrities. The reality is that online dating has not changed much since 1999, nor has it become wildly more popular since then, either.

Overall grade: F

Source

Smart Clothing

A fanciful picture feature showed what the average teenager might dress like by the year 2010. It showed a teenager of indeterminate race with spiky, almost fiber optic-like hair wearing video glasses and standing on a skateboard with a video screen attached.

Voice-activated glasses would serve as miniature computer screens and headphones. Smart T-shirts with embedded video displays would allow the teenager to show any message desired or to run advertising to make a little money. A “wrist phone“ would replace old-fashioned “brick-shaped cell phones“ and a digital wallet built into the teenager’s belt buckle would handle the wearer’s allowance as well as their passwords. Huge plastic shoes would have speakers built into them, and “conductive pants“ would be made with piezoelectric fibers that would charge the wearer’s gadgets as he or she walked. Wooden pencils would be relegated to museums.

The one thing the feature got right is the existence of tablet computers that could be carried under the arm.

Overall grade: D (but “A” for imagination)

Travel

For the next article, the magazine talked to “Lonely Planet“ author Tony Wheeler on how the Internet will affect the travel industry. He said that “virtual travel“ would not take the place of the real thing. It’s like watching sports events on television, he said—you get instant replay and multiple camera angles, but it’s still no substitute for being there. He also said that travel agents are getting squeezed out. The big thing that has changed, he said, is the fact that you can travel to remote islands and still have modern telephone service and the ability to send email back and forth. He admitted that the drawback is that this connectivity will make it more difficult to “get away from it all,“ which was once one of the major pleasures of travel.

Overall grade: A+

10 Surprising Ways the Government is Spying on You

Privacy

Online privacy was already a big issue in 1999. ”What’s Next for the Web” cited a survey from the previous year that found that web surfers thought that online privacy was an even more important issue than censorship or spam. The Federal trade commission had also released a special report to Congress in 1998 concluding that the online world had failed to adequately protect consumers. The magazine predicted for the future that e-commerce sites would get more personalized, which might be good for consumers but bad for online privacy. At the time of the writing, there was already technology that allowed websites to track every mouse click you make. Although the magazine did a pretty good job of expressing concerns about privacy, it did not exactly explain why online privacy is so important, something which is becoming increasingly obvious in these days of increasing political intolerance.

Overall grade: B

Fashion

When the magazine was printed, runway shows had already “integrated circuitry and other components into their outfits, reflecting the pervasive influence of the Web.” For the future, the magazine predicted custom-made clothing being commonly purchased online, 3-D virtual fitting rooms and fashion designers having their own websites being common. It envisioned online fashion as being “midway between mall shopping and watching a fashion show on E!” It also predicted the rise in unisex fashions with boys commonly wearing skirts.

Sorry, the predictions were not well-fitted on this topic.

Overall grade: D-

Shopping

Online shopping had already taken off by 1999, with consumers spending $12 billion on all types of items, not just books and CDs. The magazine predicted “a more sophisticated array of personalization services” for the future. A cartoon showed a woman trying to buy clothing from an intelligent onscreen digital assistant, hating all the choices she was shown, and then being frustrated when the computer crashed.

What it missed: The monopoly of Amazon, the demise of certain categories of brick-and-mortar, such as bookstores, smartphone shopping apps.

Overall grade: C

The Sound of dial-up Internet

Broadband

A lengthy article on the coming broadband access to the Internet described in detail many things that have since become common knowledge—and in common usage—today.

At the time it was written in 1999, however, most Americans connected to the Internet using dial up modems, usually running at 50,000 bits per second. The article explained that the new broadband connections would function at up to 10 million bits per second. The article also described the two most common methods of broadband access — DSL and cable.

How most Americans would get their broadband access, however, was still up in the air in 1999—literally. The article described Sky Station blimps that might float 70,000 feet above cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, transmitting webpages to subscribers below.

The article described some technologies that were a mix of fantasy and ultimate reality, such as tiny sensors embedded in “smart“ appliances and “miniature computers in people’s walls, chairs, tables, ceilings, and even clothes.” These were expected to “learn” from the needs of users. However, the writer expressed skepticism that computers would disappear into the environment within 10 years.

The article was prescient when it covered how broadband might affect the way people live. It cited researchers at Intel’s Connected.Home project who, in a six week experiment, provided a DSL connection and flat screen tablets to 10 families in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

“People’s behavior with the Internet really changed dramatically“ said one researcher. “Instead of sitting down and surfing the Net for an hour or so, people would do what we call “drive-by shootings.“ They would get on the Net for a minute or two at a time – but do it 100 times a day.“ Sounds a lot like most people’s use of social media and messaging on their smart phones and tablets today.

Overall grade: A+

Internet2 and Virtual Reality

The next article was a bit more muddled. It described such exotic things as being able to feel an item of clothing online before you purchase it, along with more mundane things, such as video chatting while dialing into an online database, or downloading CD quality music (something that was already possible in 1999, the year it was written).

It also described downloading and entering virtual reality-type environments akin to Star Trek‘s Holodeck. However, the writer had a poor idea of how virtual reality would actually develop. He described “the cave“ at Indiana University in Bloomington, where researchers set up giant computer displays on the walls, ceiling and floor.

If a user stood in the space in such a way as to be surrounded by the screens, and the screens displayed a unified virtual image, it might appear that the user was standing in a computer-generated virtual space. However, this was a much more cumbersome technology than the goggle-based method by which virtual reality finally arrived.

Overall grade: C-

Virtual Reality (1991)

Web Browsers

Many of the technologies that are still developing today already existed in 1999. A sidebar in “What’s Next for the Web?” mentioned that, at the time of writing, there were already “graphical web browsing capabilities” built-in to cable TV set-top devices, smartphones and automobile navigation systems. There was even a microwave that allowed you to check your email. It’s in predicting the future that the magazine once again stumbled.

It was right that search engines would be integrated into browsers (after all, by 1999 there was already a controversy over Microsoft making Internet Explorer part of the Windows operating system, which led to congressional hearings). However, they also predicted the use of avatars or “virtual, 3-D representations of users” fitted with a user’s physical specifications” so that he or she could try on clothes in “virtual fitting rooms” before purchase.

The article predicted that web browsers “limited to narrow color palettes and primitive animations” would be as dated as “1970s arcade games.” Instead, we would see full screen, full motion 3-D video capability with stereo surround sound.

Well, stereo already existed in 1999, so that’s not much of a prediction. However, we do commonly have full screen, HD video these days. The processors in computers in 1999 could generally only handle low resolution video in a tiny window.

It’s understandable why the magazine predicted 3-D capabilities in web browsers in 1999, as this was the time when VRML (virtual reality modeling language) was being developed. However, it’s hardly a big thing today.

The article was also correct about the increase in connection speed so that “downloading three megs of graphics for a graphical user interface will be trivial.” However, contrary to the article, most websites do not offer multiple interfaces so that grandma can have a much simpler browsing experience than the nerd does.

Also, the magazine dropped the ball in predicting a “data glove” that would “let you open virtual doors, turn virtual pages and grasp virtual objects instead of just pointing and clicking,” and giddily speculating on “tantalizing” prospects for porn sites.

The magazine ventured into sci-fi territory in covering MIT Media Laboratory’s “video wall” that allowed you to enter a “virtual space” that could be developed into a “online department store” in which you could zoom in on objects you were interested in buying and turn them around in your hand, along with “artificially intelligent sales people” to assist you. The magazine speculated on lightweight glasses filled with liquid crystal shutters that could seem to add depth to a flat screen, something that might describe 3-D TV better than the Internet.

Alternatively, it surmised that goggles might laser-scan images directly onto the retina for a 3-D view, something that was eventually developed with the Avegant Glyph, but has hardly become common or mainstream. The article also predicted “web-based action games in which users could compete in real time against opponents around the globe.” This exists in virtual reality devices such as Oculus Rift but it is not “web based.”

The article was correct in predicting the proliferation of webcams and websites that support real time multiplayer video. However, this is not commonly done in virtual reality, contrary to what the article suggested. The article was right, however, in speculating on “shared spaces” for role-playing. The article was also correct in predicting that high-speed data transfer would be key to most Internet advancements.

Overall grade: C

HP Internet Presentation (1999)

Computer Viruses

In a sidebar, the magazine discussed how computer viruses had gotten more sophisticated in recent years. It predicted that viruses might infect people’s Internet-connected kitchen appliances or even shut down their “home network’s neural center.“ Today, we do hear about people hacking into intelligent voice activated assistants such as Alexa, or spying on people through baby monitoring devices. However, the article predicted that computer viruses would ultimately be kept at bay through an “immune system technology.“ I don’t know about that, but I do think that computer viruses today have generally been kept down to a manageable level.

Overall grade: B

Libraries

In one of its final articles, the magazine took a look at the future of libraries. Pointing out that libraries have a finite amount of shelf space, it turned its attention to various book archival sites on the Internet, such as the Universal Library [www.ulib.org] which, at the time of the article, had 20,000 volumes online. (The site still exists today in 2019, but it is dated looking.) The article also mentioned children’s book sites and antiquarian book sites, as well as the estimable Project Gutenberg [www.gutenberg.net] which is a well-known repository of out-of-print books today. The article also mentioned Alexa [www.alexa.com], which tries to archive webpages for posterity, as well as the Internet Archive [www.archive.org], another well-known archival book repository.

The article didn’t say a lot about what would happen to real-world physical libraries, but from my observation, they appear to be as much about video rentals and providing Internet access as they are about books these days. In the future, I see libraries mainly performing the function of social centers and daycares for children.

Overall grade: B

Internet Archive - Old Version of Websites

AI Bots (Intelligent Agents)

A final sidebar in the magazine discussed “intelligent agents” that at the time of the writing could already scour the web for information that reflects a user’s interests. It also mentioned services that recommend books and movies based on user ratings.

The magazine predicted that “bots would revolutionize every day life.“ Smart refrigerators“ would order food when provisions ran low. Daytraders would practically be out of work because AI bots would do the trading for them.

The magazine was right and wrong about this. Daytraders are not out of work and “smart refrigerators“ are not a thing. However, “smart“ voice activated assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Now are able to answer many spoken questions (or at least direct the user to a website that can), while Amazon and various video sites suggest items that might be of interest to the customer based on his or her previous selections.

The big controversy in this politically charged era is about online censorship, or service providers avoiding recommending certain content based solely on political reasons. This is an ominous development that certainly wasn’t predicted by the magazine.

Overall grade: B-

How Did They Do?

So how did Yahoo!! Internet Life’s “What’s Next for the Web? 2000 and Beyond” fare in its predictions?

The future, and especially the future of computers and technology, are hard to predict. Thomas Watson, the president of IBM, once famously predicted a world market for only five computers. Most people—even technology experts and computer pundits—failed to foresee the imminent arrival of the Internet, even a year or two before it became a household word.

“What’s Next for the Web“ had the advantage of hindsight, as by the time the issue appeared in 1999, the Internet had been a “thing“ for over six years. Even so, the magazine stumbled in many of its predictions. The biggest mistakes it made were its omissions.

For example, the magazine said nothing about the future of magazine publishing or news reporting, a glaring omission, although it is understandable that the writers might wish to avoid considering how the Internet would ultimately lead to their own industry’s demise. Understandable, but ultimately unforgivable.

The magazine complained that not enough politicians were web savvy, but completely failed to see the pressures toward censorship that would be inflicted upon the Internet as it rose in status. The magazine was against censorship of pornography but apparently for censorship of video games. It failed, for the most part, to see the rise of mobile computing and social media sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube. It failed to foresee the fall of Yahoo! and the rise of Google.

Ultimately, it was the writers’ own biases and preconceived notions, as is so often the case, that kept them from accurately being able to see the future. As a result, I have to give the magazine an overall grade of “D“ for “disappointing.”

The Rise and Fall of Yahoo!

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