A review of:

Silicon Snake Oil

Second Thoughts
on the Information Highway

Clifford Stoll

Reviewed by Diann. Published by Anchor Books (Doubleday), New York, 1995.

Is the Internet an unalloyed blessing, or is there a snake hiding away there in the Garden of Eden? (Or, perhaps, perhaps, there's a place somewhere in between the extreme views where the discerning reader can find the Truth???)

The book raises interesting questions, and looks at the extrapolated future of the Internet carefully. Clifford Stoll isn't your standard anti-technology ranter living without electricity or telephones in some run-down shack in Montana. He's an astronomer by trade, trained to use the best of the tools technology has to offer, in order to study the stars (or whatever portion of space he devotes his time to). He's not about to kick over the technological advances of the last century, not at all. During the time he wrote this book, he even had an e-mail address.

Well, okay, the Internet isn't going to solve the educational crisis in this country. It isn't going to turn us all into literate beings. (The more and more we allow ourselves to go into hand-holding GUI/Gooey interfaces, the less we need to read, after all.) Every icon tells a story.

We can't take our computers with us (easily) and read them like one would read a paperback. In bed. In the tub. On a camping expedition. Even the smallest laptop packs some bulk, bulk better used by intrepid wilderness explorers for supplies such as water or a medical kit. And meeting people on-line, which I do on occasion, holds no candles to meeting them face to face. Warts and all.

Nor is the Internet an educational panacea, able to make up for the deficiencies in many school systems. That's best done with face to face interactive care with teachers who can be consistent, firm, and listeners. The 'net doesn't need to listen to the user, for all that low levels of interaction can be achieved.

I know all this, and still I "surf" (archaic word, that!) the Web, engage in online conversation, read a bare few newsgroups. Clifford Stoll is right. It's time consuming. Many libraries (the ones with real books in 'em) are better. Faster. Flipping paper pages looking for what one wants or needs is much faster than twiddling one's thumbs waiting for web pages to load. The Internet can encourage passivity, not unlike that one-eyed glass beast hunkered down in your living room. (But it's a lot easier, and more challenging, to create one's own inventive website than have anything whatsoever to do with most television programming... I mean, I'm going to write ANYway, and even if the desire were there, breaking into TV writing is rather an unrealistically competitive proposition!)

On a more useful note a group of us across the country was kept informed about the ongoing health of a mutual friend of ours, a diabetic who'd suffered a heart attack. Having someone post his health progress on an impromptu mailing list served to keep his immediate family from having to field as many requests for information during his last days. He went home from the hospital to die, and those of us who called could do so reasonably informed in advance as to how he was doing, and how his levels of strength were holding up, as well as the best times of day to call, reserving those calls for the possibility of more qualitative conversations with him. A "phone tree" would have worked poorly if at all. He lives far enough away that without e-mail I'd likely only now be finding out about his failing health and eventual death.

Stoll isn't saying that the Internet is "evil", or that we have to think of it in "either/or" terms. He's merely stating that it is oversold, that our expectations are out of porportion. He merely seeks a "critical discussion of the implications of an online world," noting that all far-reaching societal changes carry with them their own inherent price tags. How much of such tags do we want to pay? And in what way?

Last Updated: December 7, 1996

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