Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway

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Overview

In Silicon Snake Oil, Clifford Stoll, the best-selling author of The Cuckoo's Egg and one of the pioneers of the Internet, turns his attention to the much-heralded information highway, revealing that it is not all it's cracked up to be.  Yes, the Internet provides access to plenty of services, but useful information is virtually impossible to find and difficult to access. Is being on-line truly useful? "Few aspects of daily life require computers...They're irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, ...
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Overview

In Silicon Snake Oil, Clifford Stoll, the best-selling author of The Cuckoo's Egg and one of the pioneers of the Internet, turns his attention to the much-heralded information highway, revealing that it is not all it's cracked up to be.  Yes, the Internet provides access to plenty of services, but useful information is virtually impossible to find and difficult to access. Is being on-line truly useful? "Few aspects of daily life require computers...They're irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, speaking, and gossiping. You don't need a computer to...recite a poem or say a prayer." Computers can't, Stoll claims, provide a richer or better life.

A cautionary tale about today's media darling, Silicon Snake Oil has sparked intense debate across the country about the merits--and foibles--of what's been touted as the entranceway to our future.

"...some cautionary advice about the Internet from someone who has been using it since before it was called the Internet...asks sensible questions about the devaluation of human experience & the true implications of an online world.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Internet enthusiasts would do well to heed [Stoll's] advice: Proceed with caution and keep an eye on the rear-view mirror."--Business Week

"Just in case everyone is getting too carried away with the apparent wonders of the computer age, Clifford Stoll is here with a warning...There may be roadblocks up ahead."   --The New York Times

"Snake Oil is a manifesto. It comes at a propitious time; the on-line world has been hyped beyond recognition...Few people have more impressive credentials to trash the Internet than Stoll." --Washington Post

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Computer expert Stoll presents a backlash account of the Internet, questioning whether its potential influence is as far-reaching and positive as supporters claim. Apr.
Ray Duncan

The Network as a Half-Empty Cup

Publishers have left no stone unturned in their mad rush to exploit the public's fascination with the Internet. There's an unending deluge of books and articles on every conceivable subtopic, including (for the technologically challenged) vague but glorious speculations about the Internet's effect on society, authored by New Age Pollyannas ranging from Howard Rheingold to the late Timothy Leary. But Sir Isaac Newton told us that for every lash there is an equal and opposite backlash, and perhaps it was inevitable that some publishers would choose to go after the doom-and-gloom market niche instead.

Silicon Snake Oil, by Clifford Stoll, is a perfect example of some publishers' "smash-'n-grab" approach to the Internet. Stoll is, of course, the astronomer turned network hacker turned self-proclaimed Internet-security expert and purveyor of cookie recipes -- a celebrity of sorts as a result of his previous book, The Cuckoo's Egg. I had high hopes for this book when I picked it up, because Cuckoo's Egg was written from the heart and was vivid and entertaining. I was sad to discover that a far better title for Stoll's new book would have been

Publishing Snake Oil
.

Silicon Snake Oil represents a cold-blooded, cynical attempt to capitalize on Internet hysteria and Stoll's good name with a book that has literally almost nothing useful or original to say. It's embarrassing to take the time to read a book like this and find that the author hasn't done even the most basic homework on his subject -- if he has read Weizenbaum, Mander, Hardison, and comparable landmark books on the impact of technology, there is no evidence of it. The meat in this book would barely suffice for an Op-Ed column in Infoworld, but Stoll rambles on with vaguely formed opinions, half-baked musings, unsubstantiated prophecies of doom, and outright whining about library card catalogues for nearly 250 pages.

The most interesting thing about this book (and that's not saying much) is the appendix. Stoll reprints portions of a newsgroup discussion during which some participants assert, in effect, that Cuckoo's Egg must have been ghostwritten because it was "too good" to be the work of an amateur. Prior to reading Silicon Snake Oil, I would have scoffed at the concept that The Cuckoo's Egg was not exactly what it claimed to be. Now, I'm not so sure. In any event, save your money and buy Sherry Turkle's Life on the Screen or Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute instead.--Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385419949
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 3/28/1996
  • Pages: 249
  • Sales rank: 283,883
  • Product dimensions: 5.23 (w) x 7.99 (h) x 0.59 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Me, an Internet addict? Hey--I'm leading a full life, with family, friends, and a job. Computers are a sideline, not my life.

Jupiter is rising in the east, looking down on the Connecticut farm where I'm vacationing. On one side, a forest; on the other, a cornfield. Three guys are talking about the Knicks in the next room; in the kitchen, several women are buttering popcorn. One of them just called my name. But I don't care.

Fingers on the keyboard, I'm bathed in the cold glow of my cathode-ray tube, answering e-mail. While one guy's checking the sky through binoculars, and another's stuffing himself with popcorn, I'm tapping out a letter to a stranger across the continent. My attention's directed to the Internet.

Tonight, twenty letters want replies, three people have invited me to chat over the network, there's a dozen newsgroups to read, and a volley of files to download. How can I keep up?

I see my reflection in the screen and a chill runs down my spine. Even on vacation, I can't escape the computer networks.

I take a deep breath and pull the plug.

For fifteen years, I've been online, watching as thousands of computers joined hands to form a ubiquitous global network. At first, the nascent Arpanet seemed like an academic toy, a novelty to connect inanimate computers across the continent. Later, this plaything began supplying electronic mail and an occasional data file from other astronomers.

As the Arpanet grew into the Internet, I began to depend on e-mail to keep up with colleagues and friends. The Usenet brought news from around the continent. It became a whole new way to communicate.

Then, in 1986, whilemanaging a computer system in Berkeley, I stumbled on a group of hackers breaking into computers. No ordinary cyberpunks, these: they sold their discoveries to the Soviet KGB.

It took a year to chase them down. During that time, I realized that our networks aren't simple connections of cables and computers; they're cooperative communities.

Since then, the Internet has become a most inviting and intriguing neighborhood. E-mail and chat lines keep me in touch with friends around the world; data transfers let me exchange information with colleagues. I join in discussions over the Usenet, posting queries and answering questions. One click of the mouse and I can read the daily news or a monthly report. At once it's fun and challenging.

But what a price! Simply keeping track of this electronic neighborhood takes a couple of hours every night. I find myself pawing through internet archives or searching for novelties over the World Wide Web. I spend still more time downloading files and following newsgroups. Bit by bit, my days dribble away, trickling out my modem.

But for all this communication, little of the information is genuinely useful: The computer gets my full attention, yet either because of content or format, the network doesn't seem to satisfy.

I can't turn my back on the network. Or can I? Right now, I'm scratching my head, wondering.

Perhaps our networked world isn't a universal doorway to freedom. Might it be a distraction from reality? An ostrich hole to divert our attention and resources from social problems? A misuse of technology that encourages passive rather than active participation? I'm starting to ask questions like this, and I'm not the first.

And so I'm writing this free-form meditation out of a sense of perplexity. Computers themselves don't bother me; I'm vexed by the culture in which they're enshrined.

What follows, I suppose, shows my increasing ambivalence toward this most trendy community. As the networks evolve, so do my opinions toward them, and my divergent feelings bring out conflicting points of view. In advance, I apologize to those who expect a consistent position from me. I'm still rearranging my mental furniture.

I suspect I'll disappoint science-fiction romantics as well. Nobody can offer utopia-on-a-stick, the glowing virtual community that enhances our world through discovery and close ties while transcending the coarseness of human nature.

Oh, I care about what happens to our networked neighborhood. However, I care more about--and am affected more by--what's happening in our larger society. So do parents, professors, teachers, librarians, and, yes, even politicians.

When I put on my cone-shaped thinking cap, I wonder what I would have said fifty years ago, when the interstate highway system was first proposed. Plenty of people favored it: truckers, farmers, and shippers wanted to break the railroad monopoly. Political subdivisions, car makers, and construction unions knew it would generate money. Politicians from every state felt highways were universally good things.

Who spoke out against the superhighway system? I don't remember anyone saying, "Hey, these beltways will destroy our cities. They'll pave over pristine lands and give us hour-long commutes. They'll change our society from one of neighborhoods to that of suburbs."

In advance, then here are my strong reservations about the wave of computer networks. They isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience. They work against literacy and creativity. They undercut our schools and libraries.

Forgive me. I don't want to pontificate. But I do want people to think about the decisions they're making. It'd be fun to write about the wonderful times I've had online and the terrific people I've met through my modem, but here I'm waving a flag. A yellow flag that says, "You're entering a nonexistent world. Consider the consequences."

It's an unreal universe, a soluble tissue of nothingness. While the Internet beckons brightly, seductively flashing an icon of knowledge-as-power, this nonplace lures us to surrender our time on earth. A poor substitute it is, this virtual reality where frustration is legion and where--in the holy names of Education and Progress--important aspects of human interactions are relentlessly devalued.

End of philippic. I don't mean to lay down an unwelcome mat. Nor do I feel that I'm entitled to technogoodies and others aren't. Quite the contrary: I look forward to the time when our Internet reaches into every town and trailer park. But the medium is being oversold, our expectations have become bloated, and there's damned little critical discussion of the implications of an online world.
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