Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

IRLDecember 9, 2021

The future of the internet, as predicted by New Zealanders 20 years ago

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Around the year 2000, journalists and academics were busy forecasting what the future of the internet might hold for us. For IRL, Shanti Mathias digs through the archives and discovers the potential, and limitations, of our imaginations.

Hindsight, they say, is 20/20. But as I leaf through old magazines and scroll through microfiche (so archaic!) at the National Library, I wonder if foresight might be 17/20. I want to know how the internet felt at the turn of the millennium, and what that might say about the internet we use now. To answer that, I dig through archives of predictions people made about the world wide web, and they are right more often than I expect.

Here are some things people said about the internet around the year 2000. “Targeted email is the hottest new on-line marketing tool” (Southern Skies, February 2001). “Bill Gates’ [satellite internet project] will do for internet what iridium did for cellphones” (Unlimited, March 1999). “[The] lack of assured income would make the life of an internet journalist rather precarious” (The Evening Post, July 1998). “Your choice of [Internet service provider] … will be like your choice of car, a badge which declares what sort of person you are” (North and South, July 1999). “Even the [ecommerce] sites that have enjoyed some success, like Amazon … are in trouble” (New Zealand PC World, May 2001). 

To read these documents in the steady silence of the library’s Reading Room feels sharply ironic: these predictions about the internet have only survived in their physical forms. If the publications which printed them still exist, they are much altered, and most of their archives aren’t online. I feel like I’m tasting the collapse of New Zealand’s golden age of print journalism. In the two decades since these predictions were published, the Evening Post joined the Dominion to become the Dominion Post. North and South folded then relaunched, but doesn’t have its full archives online. PC World hasn’t had a print magazine since 2013.  And the concept of Southern Skies, a New Zealand-specific Qantas magazine, is nearly laughable today.

So, to discover the history of the internet’s future, I quickly familiarise myself with how to use the microfiche readers and the labyrinthine depths of the National Library’s requests systems. It feels like a gesture at the world that the writers of these predictions lived in: the research I want takes hours, not milliseconds to arrive. Someone strolls through real, temperature-controlled archives, the environment dry and cool to preserve the paper, and finds me the articles I need. 

Rhys Darby gets connected in a PC World article about the future of the internet from May 2001. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

“The predictions are sunny, positive, and jokey. When we made them, in 1999, the big issues didn’t seem so wicked or urgent,” Nicola Legat says. Now the publisher of Massey University Press, in 1999 Legat worked as a journalist at North and South. In July of that year, the magazine published a collectors edition of predictions for the new millennium, in which Legat authored a 20-page article forecasting the future of everything from weddings to immigration to the internet. 

Legat hadn’t thought of the article for years until I contacted her. “I can see how much work it would have been to put it together,” she says. “It was the sort of thing we specialised in at Metro and North and South.” Although her name is on the article, she clarifies that it would have been a “team effort” to pull it together.

In 1999, Nicola Legat worked for North and South magazine, where she worked on an article predicting the internet’s future. (Photo: supplied)

“So many of the things we predicted did happen because they were kind of inevitable,” she says. Among the internet-specific predictions: email addresses will be a mark of status (Compuserv.com is for the OG cyber nerds; xtra.co.nz is for the suburban family). Digital assistants will help run your home appliances. Shopping sites will allow you to plug in your measurements to find a virtual fit. Computers will enable more part-time and contract work. 

I’m struck by how small the scope of these predictions is; these forecasts cannot grasp the way that digital tools have transformed Aotearoa’s society in the last two decades. I tell Luke Goode, an associate professor at the University of Auckland who studies the social impact of digital technologies, about some of the prognostications. Lots of the general trends, like online shopping, are correct, he says, it’s just “that the specifics turned out differently”.

In encountering an internet without social media or smartphones, it’s obvious how much it’s changed in 20 years. To approach the swift flow of the digital world, I talked to Gillian Lee and Susanna Joe, who have been web archivists at the National Library for over a decade. Archives of the internet offer, to use that outdated idiom, maps of the information superhighway. 

The legal deposits system means that if you’re a New Zealand-based publisher, you have a legal requirement to give the National Library a copy of everything you publish. That’s why the Library is the easiest place for me to find old and defunct magazines, but it also collects the websites published in the .nz domain. Lee and Joe’s job is to explore Aotearoa’s internet and choose websites to archive, although they also accept submissions from the public and harvest the entire .nz domain once a year. 

“The view of a website is changing,” Lee says. When she started as an archivist, websites were complete unto themselves. Then came the hosting of videos on YouTube and photos on Flickr (incidentally making it much harder to collect usable versions of websites for the archive). The team is now planning how to collect more immersive web experiences and NFTs – the nascent metaverse. 

“Social media has totally changed the internet,” Joe says. Most internet experiences have straightforward user design now, but she reminds me that until recently – even up to the era of Tumblr – some basic coding knowledge was required to engage with the internet. 

Gillian Lee (left) and Susanna Joe browse the internet to decide what websites to archive for the National Library. (Photo: supplied)

Mostly though, Joe and Lee are engaged in the quotidian internet, the technical challenge of archiving websites to be preserved, theoretically in perpetuity. In the urgency of collecting websites – they’ve had to hire a Covid-specific digital archivist to gather social media and websites relating to the pandemic response in Aotearoa – it’s difficult to think about the larger trends.

“We have to think: what is available now, and how can we preserve it for the future?” Joe says. Often, they get requests to view websites that have already disappeared. 

I find a reminder of the internet that has vanished in the Otago Daily Times from April 1995. I speed through the microfiche until I reach it, the screen blurry. It’s an interview by Charmian Smith with Marjan Lousberg from the computer science department at Otago University. The interview is mostly about digital books. 

“We may see the end of books as information,” the ODT reports Lousberg saying. She predicts that the future of reading is printing digital books out because there’s something loveable about paper: “You can tuck [it] in your pocket and curl up on a couch with it.” She also suggests that most books will be replaced by interactive stories made by production companies with film crews, writers, and animators working together, that the linear narrative is dead. 

While some of the guesses Lousberg made about digital publishing did take place, and the literary establishment certainly witnessed a brief craze for non-linear hypertext novels, Goode suggests that this prediction exemplifies how to miss the forest for the trees. “People thought that linear narrative was over,” he says. “That came true in the sense of video games, [but] think how much internet space is taken up by people streaming three-hour linear blockbusters.”

Marjan Lousberg, from Computer Services at Otago University, was photographed in the Otago Daily Times demonstrating interactive stories in 1995. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

“Some of those predictions, they’re not way off but they’re too specific,” he says. “They’re often too focused on the tech itself and less on the kind of social and economic context that will actually shape whether these things will come to pass.”

Legat agrees. “It’s like the difference between colour and black and white TV,” she says. The individual technologies she made predictions about, palmtops and cellphones and interactive television, don’t really matter, but the big picture effect of the internet does. 

She points to the predictions she made about work, that easy access to the internet would make life easier, especially for those with office jobs. “People might now have a computer, but our days of drudgery are just as drudging,” she says. “We can never quite close the door on work.” 

Working culture is a salient example of focusing on the technology without imagining the consequences, Goode agrees. “Email seemed so convenient … It is still convenient, but my inbox is a source of great human suffering.” 

Ultimately, these histories of the future are living demonstrations of what the human imagination can achieve, and how it fails. While the predictions I’ve gathered in the quiet library are certainly not comprehensive, they’re notable not so much for the things they got wrong as the trends they miss. 

“We could never have anticipated the leaps in AI, or bitcoin,” Legat says. And “social media just fell out of the sky… there were gaping holes because there was stuff that no-one had imagined yet”. 

Goode suggests that we live in a society that is not good at imagining the future. “This presentist bias is not human nature,” he says. Our narrow relationship to time is a cultural construction. “Look at non-Western frameworks – indigenous perspectives on the relationship between past and present and future and the generations going forwards and backwards.” Presentism, as he calls it, is a product of particular social and economic conditions. 

As this cartoon shows, early internet users were obsessed with internet speeds which seem quaint and terribly slow now. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

It’s important to be reminded of the fallibility of the human imagination, Goode continues: “Do we have those institutions and cultural forms in place in the contemporary world to really push our imagination as much as we need to?” The future is something that requires collective, not individual understanding. As a scholar of the future, he’s fascinated by the Bellamyite movement, clubs dedicated to discussing the future that met in the late 19th century US, inspired by the popularity of a utopian novel, and suggests that we could do with something similar. 

The internet has witnessed a drastically-changing society over the past two decades, Legat says, with digital technology “riding shotgun” alongside political and economic forces; not always the cause, but certainly able to quicken changes that were taking place already.

“Humans are amazingly adaptive,” she says. Twenty years ago, she had to spend half an hour on the phone to book a flight, but now she can do it herself in just a few minutes. “These things are incremental… the past doesn’t feel like a foreign country.”

In the Evening Post in 1998, Dean Bedford predicted that the internet wouldn’t be profitable. (Photo: Shanti Mathias)

Given the slipperiness of the future and the way humans fail to predict it, I ask Legat and Goode if they have any guesses for how the next 20 years will play out. I’m unsure if they’ll be willing to answer; I feel tightly aware of how little I know, how much I don’t want to predict. There’s a long pause. Legat gets halfway through several predictions before deciding she can’t commit them to the page (or the website, as the case may be). “The issues are so huge,” she says; the optimism of the 1999 article now seems misplaced. 

Goode has a prediction, but it’s more to do with what’s offline than what’s online. He tells me about how Portugal is legislating the right to disconnect from the internet, especially from work. “The ability to disconnect is going to become a new form of inequality,” he says.  

To look at the past two decades of the internet, and to contemplate the years to come, is to encounter a bewildering scale. The internet weighs only a few grams but it contains fragments of the past and present, thousands of human lives splintered and tangling. I write and read about the internet all day, but I am not separate from it.

But that’s okay. Feeling the inevitable tug of the future reminds me more of the predictions of Marjan Lousberg, the computer scientist from Otago: “What are we supposed to do with all this information? I don’t know, because it’s far too much.” Two decades have passed since Lousberg told a journalist this, and the internet, with all its information, has only grown. Its future – our future – is still uncertain.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

Mad Chapman, Editor
Aotearoa continues to adapt to a new reality and The Spinoff is right there, sorting fact from fiction to bring you the latest updates and biggest stories. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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