Infobahn Warning Flags


Second Thoughts on the Information Highway

By Clifford Stoll

Doubleday 247pp $22

Clifford Stoll helped make the Internet hip. In recounting his pursuit of a fiendish gang of German hackers who had stolen information from his computers and sold it to the KGB, Stoll's first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, made the I-way seem like John Le Carre territory--even though this true-life adventure was set in the dreary world of operating systems, network nodes, and communications protocols. Published in 1989, Cuckoo's Egg sold well and did a lot to bring the then not-widely-used Internet into public view.

Now, when you can't seem to get away from the Internet, Stoll is back. But this time, the astronomer-turned-computer-security-expert is waving a yellow caution flag: Before we vault into the online future, Stoll warns in Silicon Snake Oil, we should pay careful attention to bogus claims and hidden costs.

The Net, boosters maintain, can help with everything from educating the kids to restoring participatory democracy. It will slash health-care costs with telemedicine and turn businesses into superefficient virtual corporations. Disembodied cybercitizens will overcome the boundaries of poverty, inadequate schools, and race. "The key ingredient in their silicon snake oil is a technocratic belief that computers and networks will make a better society" and cure social problems, writes Stoll.

It's not so, and the price of falling for this hype, he says, is staggering. At risk are vital institutions such as the neighborhood library and our entire education system. Rather than fixing our schools, Stoll asserts, we're diverting money from things that could make a difference, such as more books and better teachers. "Edutainment" software, he says, is nothing more than eye candy that actually makes the job of learning harder because, once exposed to it, kids won't sit still for the real thing.

Online libraries also rank high among Stoll's btes noires. As libraries race to replace card catalogs with databases and push aside reference books and periodicals to make room for computer terminals, they are courting disaster. Increasingly, anly the material that's available online will survive. From your library or home, you'll be able to surf from one end of the World Wide Web to the other, but what you'll get is a jumble of contextless data. In their relentless pursuit of discrete factoids, computers deconstruct conventional forms of information--books--into bytes. "Data isn't information any more than fifty tons of cement is a skyscraper," Stoll insists. You would learn more about a topic by leafing through a card catalog--or by asking a librarian. But, Stoll fears, by the time we figure that out, libraries will have been undermined.

And what of the online communities that come alive in the chat rooms of cyberspace? Intelligent online discourse, he says, is drowned out by drivel and extremist bullies. If cyberspace is a neighborhood, it's not a nice one.

It would be easy to dismiss Stoll as a Luddite, a curmudgeon, or a spoilsport--the kind of kid who, now that everybody has discovered his playground, wants to take his ball and go home. But Stoll is none of the above. Through highly conversational prose that includes tales of spelunking in Arizona and studying in China, Stoll reveals himself to be a thoughtful, witty observer. He's the type of person you'd like to meet in an online chat room but never do. He admits he's not the first to warn about Information Age perils. But his is a unique point of view: that of a quilt-making, cookie-baking Berkeley dweeb--who also happens to be a serious scientist.

It's his scientific experience that informs Stoll's most fundamental criticism: Our faith in computers and in "information" is built on shaky foundations. He describes his own two-year effort to analyze the composition of Jupiter's clouds using satellite data. It's a thrilling breakthrough when the computer model "reveals" that the atmosphere is composed of particles of ammonia topped by ice crystals. "Yes, but do I believe it today?" asks Stoll. "The question makes me squirm." His computer model, like every other, is founded on the programmer's assumptions, choice of data, and understanding of the material--none of which is infallible.

Yet government, businesses, investors, and ordinary citizens increasingly look to the computer for the definitive answer. "Simply by turning to a computer when confronted with a problem, you limit your ability to recognize other solutions," he warns. What makes a business excel are good ideas and smart, hard-working people. The Net can't do anything to make up for a lack of those.

Stoll hasn't turned his back on the Net. While pointing out what a waste of time Net-surfing can be, he still spends hours a day in the glow of his monitor. And in the end, he allows that he's hopeful. "For all my kvetching, I'm all grins to see people pressing limits and finding new ways to express themselves." Indeed, in the months since Stmll's manuscript was completed, there has been an explosion of innovation on the Net. Some of this work--such as new indexing systems--will address some of Stoll's concerns. Meantime, Net enthusiasts would do well to heed his advice: Proceed with caution and keep an eye on the rear-view mirror.

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