Twenty years ago: deconstructing hype

Dutch national newspaper De Volkskrant launched a site to commemorate their initial steps on the internet, 20 years ago, on May 6, 1996. All in good fun, e.g. de site looks like a Windows 95 desktop. On it, they put a few articles from that time. Amongst the six articles they chose to put on the site, one is an opinion piece from me from July 1995.

[My apologies: this story is not exactly about Enterprise Architecture. But it is related.]

The short opinion article now reproduced on the site from De Volkskrant is titled “Internet-fanatics are selling romantic bullshit” and it was a reaction to two articles that appeared one week before.

In that time, I sometimes had articles published in various magazines and newspapers, mostly IT-related. This was at the start of the dot-com boom and long before the dot-com bust, and I was one of the few skeptical voices out there. In the Science & Technology section of another national newspaper (Trouw), I wrote a series under the title “7 myths of the electronic highway”, for instance.

So, have the writings from that time withstood the test of time? Just for fun, here it is, taken from the site of De Volkskrant and translated into English.

Internet fanatics are selling romantic bullshit

AS early supporter of today’s Internet technology I start getting more annoyed by the romantic nonsense which appears about it in the media. Take Forum on Saturday, July 1st, with two articles about the benefits of the information superhighway and its precursor: the internet.

By GERBEN WIERDA

I won’t pay attention to the piece by Maurice de Hond ( “Our country is ruled by digital illiterates”) for long. At most this: his worries regarding the policy makers is partly justified. They regulate what they do not understand. But it could just as well, if not stronger, apply this the other way around. Marshall McLuhan (still a popular figure in Internet circles) suggested a while ago: A fish is the last creature capable of understanding the water. This is also applicable to the present generation of internet enthusiasts.

More interesting, because of the nice examples of simplistic reasoning is the piece by Marcel Bullinga, “Tele-democracy is a new opportunity for citizens and politicians.” He advocates for electronic participation by citizens. It is a nice example of the existing romantic confusion. Why do all those Internet enthusiasts users believe that a change in the form of transport of — part of — the information will have such a large influence on the content?

No ‘meeting tigers’*) on the internet? Please. Visit a typical discussion forum on the net. A more clear example of the shouting of simple ideas by a small group of discussants is nowhere to be found. What is particularly striking is that the participants continue until late at night if necessary. To me those are simply ‘digital meeting tigers’. The form is different, but the essence is the same. There is just no chairman who keeps proceedings a bit under control so we can all go to bed at half past ten.

Another example: “Then, software will be developed that can chop any complicated social problem into readily understandable chunks. Citizens then walk through a ‘tree’ of choices”.

That description expands a little further, but it seems that Marcel Bullinga thinks every problem can be reduced to a set of World Wide Web pages. It’s the romantic illusion where humans are idealised. You just have to explain to the citizen the dilemma only in the right way. The “right” choice then automatically follows.

The romantic belief that complex problems can be reduced to tree structures, is somewhat reminiscent of the research into artificial intelligence of some thirty years ago. That failure made at least clear that rules and facts just are not sufficient to come to intelligent behaviour. Never mind clever feats like chess or small ‘neural networks’. Even the researchers at IBM working on the chess programs have dropped all pretensions to ever reach AI. (Wired, January 1995).

You can find a lot of romantic illusions on the Internet. Romantic in the sense of oversimplifications, simple answers to difficult dilemmas. The transport is free (who pays for all this talk anyway?), The content is free (you should explain that to a publisher). Five hundred TV channels for the ‘herumzappende Nichtlesern” (Frankfurter Allgemeine) is the same as personal contact between everyone and everything, a couch potato is like an interactive citizen and a digital encounter can compete with a real one.

“He who predicts the future lies, even when he speaks the truth,” says an Arab proverb. Here’s my lie: even the Internet hype will be short-lived.

THE biggest danger of this whole development (in addition to some very favourable things, for sure) is that the flexible human being is going to adapt to rigid digital technology. A society in which all complex problems are reduced to a tree structure.

It’s a creepy kind of naivety, which leads to systems in which the citizen is relegated to a producer of information required by the system. “Sorry, you do not fit into the system.” The image Roel in ‘t Veld painted during the NGI conference ‘The Consequences’ on digital developments was nice: information consists of data with an ordening that makes sense. ‘Sense making’ is determined by human norms and values. Information systems are thus a form of coagulated norms and values. This image illustrates the challenges facing us.

Personally, I am optimistic. I do not think the negative development I have will occur. I think people are just going to find that there is more between heaven and earth than problems that have been reduced tree structures and perceptions reduced to bits. I hope that the Maurice de Hond’s “computer illiterates” will be ‘man’ enough to counter this nonsense.

Gerben Wierda is staff member of the Advisory Council for Science and Technology Policy and author of the forthcoming background study on the future of scientific information.

This article appeared in de Volkskrant of July 8, 1995

*) A typical (and untranslatable) Dutch term: “vergadertijger” (literally: “meeting-tiger”), which stands for someone who enjoys and is very good at participating in meetings and keeps on going in them (stamina), and who likes to go to meetings a lot. It can be someone who really loves the content of meetings (discussing the last dot on the i and the last comma) or someone who just enjoys the process. It’s often used in a slightly derogatory way, suggesting someone who enjoys the meeting for the sake of the meeting, mostly in the context of politics, business or societies (like ‘the elite’), but it does not need to be derogatory, it can be positive as well, in terms of being impressed by someone who is a meeting-tiger. Note: it does not mean someone who talks too much, it could be someone who is largely silent during meetings. I cannot blame Google Translate that it was unable to translate it. (GW 2016)

Internet in 1995 was hyped. It was hyped with silly stories that defied economics (“make money? why? everything is/should be free, shouldn’t it?”), science (fairly unfounded belief in AI, for instance), philosophy (e.g. the nature of knowledge), politics (“the whole population could become part of the everyday political decision making process”) and so forth. Though a firm believer in the future of internet and digitisation, I really disliked some of the nonsense that was spread around in its name.

As I discussed ten years later with one of the enthusiasts of that period (who went bust), my scepsis turned out to be justified. I do, however, also envy a bit those that were true believers. They had their ‘Woodstock moment’, their absolute conviction that paradise, a new world, was around the corner. That (romantic) bliss, I never had. Also not the hangover when everything went bust, so I’m not that envious…

Anyway, the bust that followed the hype made people less naive. But IT-hype has not completely gone away. Big Data and analytics, for instance, currently have many of the hallmarks of being another hype, including the links to AI. To illustrate that we need to remain careful when dreaming about AI from digital computers, here is the Google translate version of the article. It gets a few thing amazingly well, but some other disastrously not, and then tops it by ending with “This article appeared in the Times of July 8, 1995”. I never knew that 🙂

Internet enthusiasts selling romantic nonsense

AS early supporter of today’s Internet technology I start getting more annoyed by the romantic nonsense about which appears in the media. Take forum Saturday, July 1st, with two articles about the benefits of the information superhighway and its precursor: the internet.

By GERBEN WIERDA

When the piece by Maurice de Hond ( “Our country is ruled by digital illiterates”) I do not stand still for long. At most, this means the care he has regarding the policy is partly justified. They regulate what one does not understand. But it could just as well, if not stronger, apply the other way around. Marshall McLuhan (still a popular figure in Internet circles) suggested ever wanted: A fish is the last creature capable of understanding the water. Also applicable for the present generation online.

Interestingly, because of the nice examples of short-bocht’ the reasoning is the piece of Marcel Bullinga, “Tele Democracy is new opportunity for citizens and politicians.” He advocates for electronic participation and by citizens. It is a nice example of the resulting romantic confusion. Why do all those Internet users nevertheless that the change in the form of transport of – part of – the information will have such a large influence on the content?

At just under ‘meeting tigers “? Go look in a typical discussion forum on the net. A more serious appearance of the horns of simple ideas by a small group of discussants is almost inconceivable. What is particularly striking is that one but continues until late at night if necessary. To me that simply ‘digital conference tigers. The form is different, but the essence is the same. There is just no President in the case is still somewhat in hand so we all still at half past eleven to go to bed.

Another example: “Then, to develop software any complicated social problem chopped into readily understandable chunks. Citizens through a ‘tree’ of choices.”

The description goes a little further, but it seems that Marcel Bullinga thinks every problem is to reduce it to the World Wide Web pages. It’s the romantic illusion which man is idealized. You do a citizen to explain the dilemma only right and then automatically follows a “right” choice.

The romantic belief that complex problems are reduced to allow tree structures, somewhat reminiscent of the research into artificial intelligence of some thirty years ago. The largely fail it was at least clear that rules and facts just it is not sufficient to come to intelligent behavior. And do not come with clever feats like chess or small ‘neural networks’. Even the researchers at IBM working on the chess programs have all pretensions to ever reach AI drop. (Wired, January 1995).

On the Internet you can find a lot of romantic illusions. Romantic in the sense of oversimplifications, simple answers to difficult dilemmas. The transport is free (who pays for all this talk anyway?), The content is free (you have to explain a publisher once). Five hundred TV channels for the ‘herumzappende Nichtlesern”(Frankfurter Allgemeine) is the same as personal contact between everyone and everything, a couch potato is like an interactive citizen and a digital encounter can compete with a real one.

“He who predicts the future lies, even when he speaks the truth,” says an Arab proverb. Here’s my lie: even the Internet hype was short-lived.

THE biggest danger of this whole development (in addition to some very favorable things, for sure) is that the flexible human being is going to adapt to the rigid digital technology. A society in which all complex problems are reduced to a tree structure.

It’s a creepy kind of naivety that leads to systems in which the citizen is relegated to a producer of information required by the system. “Sorry, you will not fit into the system.” The image Roel in ‘t Veld recently sat down during the NGI conference’ The Consequences’ on digital developments was fine: information consists of sense-based data. What makes sense is determined by human values. Information systems are the result of solidified values. This picture gives a good weather the challenges facing us.

Personally, I am optimistic. I do not think I have described negative development will occur. I think people are just going to find that there is more between heaven and earth than to tree structures reduced to bits problems and reduced perceptions. I hope that the “computer illiterates” by Maurice de Hond ‘man’ will be enough to provide this kind of nonsense head.

Gerben Wierda is staff member of the Advisory Council for Science and Technology Policy and author of the forthcoming background study on the future of scientific information.

This article appeared in the Times of July 8, 1995.

Just out of curiosity, I tested a few translations of various Dutch newspaper names:

  • Trouw remains Trouw
  • De Telegraaf becomes The Telegraph, understandable but strange
  • Het Algemeen Dagblad remains Algemeen Dagblad
  • Het Nederlands Dagblad gets dumbed down to Dutch newspaper
  • Het Parool remains Het Parool
  • NRC remains (intelligently) the NRC
  • De Volkskrant becomes The Times

Reliable machine translation, might be a better test for AI than the Turing test, if you ask me.

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