Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway

Clifford Stoll
New York: Doubleday, 1995
248 pp., $22.00 hc

Steve Lockwood

Clifford Stoll, the computer expert who tracked down a German spy ring over the Internet (and wrote a book about it--The Cuckoo's Egg) has discovered that the Internet may cause society more harm than good. Paradoxically, the book's strength is also its weakness: although Stoll clearly identifies problems, he simplifies both technological and social issues, thus making the book accessible to non-experts. But this design precludes in-depth investigation of thorny problems (e.g., information control, censorship, public and private costs) which surround the information highway. Indeed, some computer trade publications have dismissed the book as repetitious, anecdotal, and therefore insignificant. This is a sour grapes response from the True Believers. Within its announced limits, the book meets Stoll's goal of a "free-form meditation" intended to raise concerns and point readers toward other sources which treat these issues more fully.

Stoll describes and/or predicts the Internet's impact on communication, on research, on schools, and on libraries. He muses that perhaps a world networked with computers is a "misuse of technology" (2) and lists his three main reservations about networks and computer use generally: "they isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience. They work against literacy and creativity. They will undercut our schools and libraries" (3). And while he, like others in the online world, hopes for a democratic deployment of computer technology "into every town and trailer park," he rightly asserts that the technology "is being oversold, our expectations have become bloated, and there's damned little critical discussion of the implications of an online world" (4). What's worse, this emphasis is occurring "in the holy names of Education and Progress" (4), a charge that Montana Professor readers are in a good position to judge from personal experience.

Stoll questions the myth that Internet users have instant and easy communications world wide, although this claim is often advanced by Believers. Stoll says not only is the end unimproved (communication), but the Internet as means is often unreliable. His own two-month test shows that the oft-maligned U.S. Postal Service is more reliable, and cheaper (161-62). And less complex: practically any e-mail user can agree that the complexity of e-mail addressing and its unforgiving protocols make difficult the job of sending e-mail--and of discovering addresses.

The Internet emphasis on virtual reality in the past few years has had several perverse side effects on communication and research. Simplest to understand is the substitution of virtual communities (computer networks) for neighborhood or classroom communities. Contrary to claims of many computer apologists, Stoll says computer communication isolates people more from one another (not less) when they spend hours alone typing on phosphorus screens. He notes that a common related phenomenon may serve as a prodromus: the self-absorption and unrealistic expectations that children learn from computer games. Many Nintendo shoot-em-up games, as parents can confirm, have settings that allow the player to shoot or destroy an opponent without himself being damaged--and without moral consequences.

Stoll also notes the danger of too willingly accepting results from computer simulations of reality. Programmers often assume that data have been "perfectly sampled throughout history" (29). This incorrect assumption skews results and leads to false interpretations. Computer models, reductive by necessity, can't consider the variables that, consciously or not, feed human assessments, whether of hunger or of mathematics.

Assumptions built into software rarely attract critical attention. A Stoll source, Theodore Roszak's Cult of Information (1994), shows why they should. In one example the four most popular financial planning programs were fed the same data for a hypothetical middle-class family. Results diverged widely for such critical decisions as savings and retirement, because programmers constructed the software with different assumptions about financial planning (Roszak 118). Yet to most people, the program's printout gives every appearance of error-free authority.

The folly of accepting computer results without questioning has frightening implications for military strategies. Roszak shows how assumptions built into military and political software can adversely affect everyone (193-202). Stoll is strangely silent about the military and computers, except to note the evolution of today's Internet from ARPAnet (2). He doesn't mention that this network was originally established in the early 1970s by the military to transfer data among their own machines, and that it rapidly evolved into the Pentagon's Defense Applied Research Projects Agency network (DARPAnet), intended to link the military with major universities conducting research for them (Roszak 123, 170, 195). In fact, the military has been the driving force behind computer development, especially for war simulations and weapons gambles, such as the extraordinarily costly Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") of the 1980s. Perhaps as an astronomer who needs access to NASA data, Stoll doesn't wish to nip the hand that feeds him. Nonetheless, omitting a critical look at the continuing role played by military and security agencies in the computerization of America is the book's glaring weakness.

About computers as teaching tools, Stoll effectively argues the following litany: that teacher-student interactions are the essence of teaching and learning (117); that television and computers are barriers to, not facilitators of, such relationships (118); that although high-profile experiments such as the $7 million North Carolina distance learning program and Chris Whittle's TV-in-schools project have flopped, parents and principals still clamor for computers in classrooms (116); that computers aren't necessary for learning, even in computer science, physics, and astronomy (121); that professors in college, under pressure to use computers in their classes, often assign work that has less to do with the course than with learning specific software, and this software often constrains students to the assumptions and solutions built into its rule sets (122-23); that the job for which computers are designed, the instant recall of specific facts from a database, is insignificant compared to the interpretation of these facts and the analysis of the policies under which they (and not others) were collected (124); and, finally, that computers don't address the shortcomings of today's schools, such as overcrowding, violence, and teacher competence, but drain funds away from direct solutions (126-27).

Stoll notes that except for rich districts (and well-endowed colleges), schools don't have the infrastructure to support computers, let alone computer networks which take money to install and maintain (128). Computers can't teach thinking, or the fundamentals of writing (139-40). Nor can they solve social problems. Last spring white students at MSU-Bozeman and black students at Howard University in Washington, D.C. collaborated over the Internet. This is a laudable start at raising ethnic consciousness, but had one group spent that time living among the other, a deeper visceral and intellectual understanding would have resulted. Here the virtual experience is an impoverished substitute for reality.

Libraries, says Stoll, have been dangerously devalued by promises that the Internet will simplify and speed research. A routine claim is that the Internet will obviate the need for the pedestrian, human-staffed libraries most communities now have, because anyone with Internet access can browse the holdings of any computerized "library." While students and professors in Montana can certainly look at the holdings of several university libraries, very little of the content is available online, mostly for copyright reasons (178). It's little comfort to see a call number on the computer screen when the article itself remains inaccessible.

Another Internet limitation for research is that very little existing print material has been digitized, an expensive and inaccurate process even with the best equipment (179). And copyrights prevent much material from being available online (178). In Montana libraries many students are served Academic Abstracts on CD-ROM; these serve a purpose, but not a replacement for the whole article--a practice which has unfortunately spread because the CD subscription is cheaper than subscriptions to the individual journals. Thomas Mann of the Library of Congress says this shrinking of availability leads to shallow research (183); people tend to use what's easily uncovered, no matter how trivial, rather than more difficult sources, no matter how important. Teachers now encounter students whose idea of researching a problem is to present a multiple-sheet printout from the library's computer terminal, in the belief that it represents all the library contains.

Stoll argues that the "advance" made by hypertext links on the world wide web is certainly helpful in some research situations, but it's hardly the leap forward in building knowledge that some have claimed (because hopping from topic to topic supposedly mimics the way humans think). Part of the idea behind human documents is some sort of mutually recognizable order, necessary for communication with other humans. It is ironic that the computer, which can be made to order data according to specific structures, should in this pursuit of knowledge contribute instead to randomness. Since computers see any string of characters as information, structuring an Internet search can be tricky; the absence of a uniform cataloging scheme makes finding sources a matter of chance, at least, compared to library indices (194).

But the most pernicious trend in libraries related to the Internet is the diversion of monies from print acquisitions to computer equipment. This push toward computerizing libraries seems to parallel the push in industry toward robotics: eliminate people and the system will run smoothly. Stoll's compelling fear is that libraries will be destroyed "from the inside" by diverting book funds into hardware, resulting in fast but low-quality information (214).

Unlike much of the literature written by computer aficionados, Stoll's meditation raises important social considerations about America's drive to computerize. Although too chatty at points, the style is engaging. However, concerned readers, especially those who have heard that without computer literacy they'll be left behind, will want the extended discussions presented by Dreyfus, Roszak, and others mentioned in Stoll's appendix.

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