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29 Prescient Quotes About the Internet from 1996

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Twenty years ago, the Web was young, but it was hot. We were all trying to figure out what it meant. While a heck of a lot has changed since then, here are 29 quotes from 1996 that were truly prescient. (In each case, I have added emphasis.)

1-4. BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF WIT

Ten years from now, America Online will have gone the way of the water-bed store” –Bruce R. Burningham, letter to the editor. (The New York Times, 14 January 1996.)

On Microsoft’s Internet Explorer web browser: “It’s the browser your mom will use.” (Time, 16 September 1996.)

Email is boring but good. Like pencils, it just works.” –Tom Jennings (Wired, April 1996).

“The Internet is the printing press of the technology era.” –Jim Barksdale, then CEO of Netscape Communications Corporation (Time, 16 September 1996).

5-7. CYBERSEX, ONLINE DATING, OH MY!

“Thanks for accentuating the positive, but I'm afraid more people are interested in cybersex than bird-watching.” –Ann Landers, to a letter writer listing the positive aspects of the Internet. (The Chicago Tribune, 14 June 1996.)

"‘For better or worse, one of the most popular ways to look for a mate in the '90s is on-line,’ says Judith A. Broadhurst, author of The Woman's Guide to Online Services (McGraw-Hill, $19.95.) ‘I heard from so many women who met their husbands on-line...that I began to wonder if anyone meets in any other way anymore.’” –Article by Leslie Miller (USA Today, 13 February 1996).

“It sounds like asking for trouble to me. Aside from the fact that you are carrying on with a married woman, Kate may not be what you expect. I recently heard about a teen who was communicating online with a female he thought was about his age; when they met, he found out she was a 76-year-old granny!” –Dear Abby, to a letter writer who wants to pay for his online paramour from Australia to visit him in Michigan. (Via uexpress, 22 July 1996.)

8-9. INTERNET ADDICTION (A.K.A. "NETAHOLISM")

“Dr. [Kimberly S.] Young said that if alcoholism is any guide to Netaholism, between 2 percent and 5 percent of the estimated 20 million Americans who go on line might be addicted.” –Pam Belluck (Washington Post, 1 December 1996).

[U]niversities are considered hot zones for potential Internet junkies because they often give students free and unlimited Net access.” (The Chicago Tribune, 26 June 1996.)

10-15. INTERNET AWFULNESS AND AWESOMENESS

Letting your e-mail address fall into the wrong hands isn’t exactly like having a maniacal stalker parked outside your front door. But it’s close.” (Spin, March 1996.)

“These technologies are going to profoundly affect the way we perceive our humanity. We all have ideas to share and stories to tell and now we really can.” –Anthony Rutkowski, on the potential of the Internet. (The Washington Post, 21 February 1996. Incidentally, the article describes Rutkowski as “a de facto global spokesman for all things cyberspace.”)

“The people decrying the Net are using technology as a scapegoat for the fact that we haven’t, as a society, addressed these problems. Yes, it’s a shame that there are pedophiles on the Internet. But the real horror is there are pedophiles in the real world and that pedophilia exists at all. ... Let’s face facts. To the extent that there’s a problem out there, it’s our society that’s sick—or at least, it has spawned a number of sick and broken people. The Internet, as the most personal medium ever developed, reflects that. I guess cartoonist Walt Kelly said it best: ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’” –John Schwartz, on the ugliness of online behavior and content (Washington Post, 18 November 1996).

Aimless chat is the insidious seduction of the Internet; it can replace inward contemplation and real experience.” –Sidney Perkowitz (The American Prospect, May-June 1996).

“The Internet has the potential to raise students’ sensitivity. Because it is international in its communication, people have to become more sensitive to the way what they say may be interpreted by people who come from different cultural backgrounds.” –Diane Romm, talking about the Internet in education (The New York Times, 2 June 1996).

“People can get lost in virtual worlds. Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion. It is not. Our experiences there are serious play. We belittle them at our risk. We must understand the dynamics of virtual experience both to foresee who might be in danger and to put these experiences to best use. Without a deep understanding of the many selves that we express in the virtual, we cannot use our experiences there to enrich the real. If we cultivate our awareness of what stands behind our screen personae, we are more likely to succeed in using virtual experience for personal transformation.” –Sherry Turkles (Wired, January 1996).

16-19. THE DEATH OF PRINT AND THE RISE OF FREE ONLINE CONTENT

There's so much free content [online], it's going to be extremely hard to get people to pay.” –Marc Andreessen, quoted in article by Mike Snider (USA Today, 29 February 1996).

“I can imagine a not-so distant future when a sizable fraction of professional writers won't ever enter the world of print but will go directly from school to digital publishing. Maybe they'll be constrained at first by the needs of older readers who were raised on print and who have only recently and partially and timidly converted to the nonlinear faith. But in time, this will change, as printing comes to be seen as too expensive and cumbersome, as computers become more powerful and more interlinked, and as they show up in every classroom and office, in every living room and den.” –Paul Roberts (Harper’s, July 1996).

Sometimes, surfing along on the World Wide Web, you can cross the line from content to advertisement without even knowing it.” –Sally Chew (New York Magazine, 6 May 1996).

“The Internet has become the ultimate narrowcasting vehicle: everyone from UFO buffs to New York Yankee fans has a Website (or dozen) to call his own—a dot-com in every pot. Technology will only quicken the pace at which news is moving away from the universal and toward the individualized.” –Richard Zoglin (Time, 21 October 1996).

20-22. PRIVACY, ENCRYPTION, AND THE GOVERNMENT

“The Web is a crazy quilt of both utopian and Orwellian possibilities. Its fans make wide-eyed predictions of world peace and democracy even as privacy advocates say that it will destroy the notion of confidentiality in our home lives.” –Elizabeth Corcoran (Washington Post, 30 June 1996).

“As for encryption, the Government keeps trying to do what governments naturally do: control people. They would like to ban encryption [which scrambles and unscrambles information on computers] to make it easier for law enforcement to listen in on people. In principle, all they want to do is stop crime. But the fact is that encryption is defensive technology against big government, big business, big crime. I’d rather have defensive technology than leave the power to snoop in the hands of people I might not trust.” –Esther Dyson (quoted in The New York Times, 7 July 1996).

“Technolibertarians rightfully worry about Big Bad Government, yet think commerce unfettered can create all things bright and beautiful—and so they disregard the real invader of privacy: Corporate America seeking ever-better ways to exploit the Net, to sell databases of consumer purchases and preferences, to track potential customers however it can.” –Paulina Borsook (Mother Jones, July/August 1996).

23-29. THE FUTURE OF THE INTERNET

“I think the importance of interactivity in online media can’t be overstated [...] When I can cheerfully scroll past the cyberpundit of the moment’s latest exposé to the discussion area that features the opinions of true experts like myself and my hometown’s own Joe Bob, I’ll feel I’ve finally broken free.” – Carl Steadman, co-founder of early web magazine Suck, which Time calls “an irreverent online daily” (Time, 21 October 1996.)

“As the Internet’s capacity for data transmission increases and multimedia technology improves, it will become as easy to copy music, photos and movies as it is to copy text now. [...] How can government hope to prevent copyright infringement without encroaching upon individual privacy rights? It cannot. Content providers must accept the loss of those customers willing to pirate content and concentrate on packaging their products with enough value added so that wealthier customers remain willing to pay.” –Steven D. Lavine, letter to the editor (The New York Times, 22 March 1996).

“CD-ROMs have become so popular that virtually all new desktop computers are shipped with the ability to use them. But by the turn of the century, CD-ROMs could themselves become unused relics, just like those old 5¼-inch floppies. And why? The big ol’ Internet, as you might expect.” –William Casey (Washington Post, 22 July 1996).

“Just wait, says Microsoft chief technologist Nathan Myhrvold. Even your hot-water heater will become computerized and hooked to the Net. ‘Anything that can be networked will be networked,’ he says.” –Kevin Maney (USA Today, 18 November 1996).

“How many times have you received a message on paper and wished you could send quick reply back to the sender? Motorola’s new PageWriter two-way pager lets you do exactly that—no need to connect to a telephone or computer as previous two-way pagers have required. To send a message, all you do is unfold a miniature keyboard and type in your text. [...] Just how big demand for the device will be remains to be seen.” –Frank Vizard (Popular Science, December 1996).

The Internet as we know it now will be quaint. The Citizen’s Band radio phase died out, and the Internet is kind of in that CB radio state. It will evolve and mature in a couple of ways. It’ll be a global electronic city, with slum areas and red light districts, but it’ll also have a central business district.” –Timothy Logue, “a space and telecommunications analyst with Coudert Brothers in Washington” (Satellite Communications, September 1996).

“The Internet is a revolution in communications that will change the world significantly. The Internet opens a whole new way to communicate with your friends and find and share information of all types. Microsoft is betting that the Internet will continue to grow in popularity until it is as mainstream as the telephone is today.” –Bill Gates (Time, 16 September 1996).

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As Big as a What? How Literary Size Comparisons Change Over Time
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Many humans are bad at visualizing what measurements really mean unless you give them a comparison. Tell someone a space is 360 feet long and they'll probably just blink; say it's the length of a football field and you might get a nod of comprehension. That's why many writers use size comparisons rather than precise measurements in non-technical works. (It also helps convince people your work wasn't written by a robot.) But the comparisons that writers use reflect the culture and time period they're in—tell an ancient Roman something is the size of a credit card or a car, and you're not going to get very far.

As spotted by Digg, programmer and data visualization whiz Colin Morris recently performed an experiment that demonstrates how these kinds of object comparisons change over time. Morris mined the vast Ngram dataset of English-language Google Books for occurrences of the phrase "the size of ___" between 1800 and 2008, then ranked the top results by popularity overall and in specific centuries. Some of the results made perfect sense (England has phased out the shilling; basketball didn't exist for most of the 1800s), while others were more surprising (why did we stop referring to cats as a popular size comparison in the 21st century?).

Overall, Morris found that items from the natural world have fallen into decline as reference points, while sports analogies have exploded onto the scene. (Morris wonders whether this has to do with the rise of leisure time, and/or the mass media that exposes far more spectators to sports than ever before.) Some of the specific results also have intriguing stories to tell: We no longer talk about the size of pigeon's eggs largely thanks to the extinction of the passenger pigeon, which was once the most numerous bird in the United States. The numbers of city pigeons just don't compare—when was the last time you saw one of their eggs?

There is one clear winner across the centuries, however: peas. These tiny legumes were the most popular reference point in the 1800s and they remain so today. The same is true of runner-up the walnut. Let it not be said we have nothing in common with our ancestors.

Here are the top five items in each century that Morris investigated:

1800s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. hen's egg

1900s

1. pea
2. walnut
3. pinhead
4. egg
5. orange

2000-2008

1. pea
2. walnut
3. quarter
4. football field
5. egg

For the full list, head over to Colin Morris's site.

[h/t Digg]

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The Highs and Lows of the Dell Dude
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Benjamin Curtis was just 19 years old when he went to the open audition that would change his life, but he still felt like a senior citizen. He was surrounded by child actors from the ages of 12 to 17, most of them accompanied by their mothers. The group was part of a casting call for Dell, the personal computing company well-known to business and educational customers but an unproven commodity for the home market.

Dell’s ad agency, Lowe Worldwide, hoped to change that reputation by introducing the character of Steven, a sharp, tech-savvy teen who would extol the virtues of Dell’s desktop and laptop offerings in a charmingly goofy manner. Even though he was two years outside the age range, Curtis’s agent believed he had a shot.

He read. And read again. And then read a third time. By December 2000, Curtis had gotten the part and was quickly becoming known as the “Dell Dude,” a pitchman who rivaled the Maytag Man in terms of commercial popularity. But by 2003, the character would disappear, victimized by a peculiar kind of corporate hypocrisy. While the Dell Dude’s stoner wisdom was good for laughs and increased sales, Curtis being arrested for actual marijuana possession was not.

In 1984, Michael Dell was a pre-med student at the University of Texas when he began tinkering with home computing hardware. A serial entrepreneur—he once made $18,000 as a teenager collecting data to find new subscribers for the Houston Post—Dell figured that custom machines and aggressive customer support would help fill a niche in the growing PC market.

He was right. Dell racked up $1 million in sales that year and spent the next decade and a half expanding into a billion-dollar enterprise. But a lot of Dell’s business consisted of commercial accounts like schools and government offices, leaving direct-to-consumer sales largely untapped. To help introduce Dell to those users, the company hired Lowe Worldwide to create a campaign that would appeal to people who felt intimidated by the personal computing phenomenon.

Lowe conceived of a precocious kid who could rattle off Dell’s specs and lend a human face to their line of hardware. But the “Dell Dude” wasn’t fully realized until Curtis walked in the door.

Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Curtis grew up interested in performing magic and drifted toward theater in an attempt to strengthen his stage presence. He went on to earn an acting scholarship to New York University and had a roommate who knew a commercial talent agent. Having been introduced to her, he began going out on casting calls. One of them was for Dell.

Embodied by Curtis, the Steven character morphed into a Jeff Spicoli-esque surfer archetype, fast-talking and charming. In his first appearance, Steven makes a videotaped appeal to his father for an $849 Dell desktop “with a free DVD upgrade” because he knows his dad “likes free stuff.” In another, he encourages a friend’s family to gift his buddy with a Dell for $799, complete with an Intel Pentium III processor.

The commercials debuted in 2000, but it wasn’t until DDB, the Chicago ad agency that took over Dell’s account, introduced a catchphrase that Steven acquired his nickname. In his fourth commercial, he announced to his friend, “Dude you’re getting a Dell!”

From that point on, Dell’s splash into residential home computing was guaranteed. Sales rose 100 percent, with Dell’s market share growing by 16.5 percent. The awareness was almost exclusively the result of Curtis’s popularity, which grew to include numerous online fan pages and calls for personal appearances. Younger viewers wrote in and wondered if he was available for dates; older viewers considered him a non-threatening presence.

By 2002, Steven had starred in more than two dozen Dell spots. In some of the later ads, he took a back seat, appearing toward the end of the ads. The cameos prompted some concern among fans that Dell would be sidelining Curtis, but company representatives denied it. In early 2003, however, the Dell Dude found himself out of a job.

“Dude, you’re getting a cell” was the headline in media accounts of Curtis’s arrest in February 2003 on suspicion of attempting to purchase marijuana. Curtis was on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and sporting a kilt he recently acquired in Scotland when an undercover officer spotted him purchasing the drug from a dealer. After being held in custody overnight, Curtis was released and the case was adjourned. If he stayed out of trouble for a year, his record would be expunged.

The New York Times compared the relative innocuousness of his arrest to that of actor Robert Mitchum, who was arrested on a marijuana-related charge in 1948. Despite living in a more conservative era, Mitchum’s career was largely unaffected. The same didn’t hold true for Curtis, however; he was promptly dropped by Dell as their spokesperson. According to Curtis, the company had a strict no-drugs policy for employees, and one strike was all it took to force his dismissal.

Feeling ostracized from commercial work and typecast by the role, Curtis juggled gigs while working at a Mexican restaurant in New York and enduring daily recognition from customers. “They’ll get really drunk, and they’ll start yelling things at me,” he told Grub Street in 2007. “I either ignore them, or if it’s way out of hand, I go up and say, ‘I appreciate your support, but my name is Ben.’ That usually doesn’t work so I smile and ignore them.”

Dell never found a mascot as well-liked as Curtis. They hired singer Sheryl Crow to appear in spots beginning in 2005, but she didn't sway consumers as much as Steven had. In 2010, the company attempted to battle back from negative press over selling defective computers to customers between 2003 and 2005. Today, they typically occupy a list of the top three PC companies, trailing Lenovo and HP.

Curtis, meanwhile, made a segue into off-Broadway performing and now operates Soul Fit NYC, a holistic wellness center in New York that offers yoga, massage, personal training, and life coaching services. Although he’s expressed interest in coming back to Dell as a spokesperson, the company may not appreciate his latest indiscretion: In 2013, he admitted to owning a MacBook.

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