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Shedding Skin - Thoughts on "Silicon Snake Oil"

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Just because you read and liked Clifford Stoll's book "The Cuckoo's Egg," don't assume you'll automatically like his latest, "Silicon Snake Oil" (ISBN: 0-385-41993-7). This is not because the new book is not worth reading, but because it's a very different sort of book. "Cuckoo's Egg" was an interesting story (and a well-told one at that) about the author's real-life experiences tracking down a group of German crackers. "Silicon Snake Oil" is a set of opinion pieces, written around a common set of themes - almost all cautionary - about the Internet and computers in general.

Elementary, Dear Data -- Stoll's first major theme is that using computers can put too much distance between us and what we are trying to do. It is possible to get so enmeshed in the illusion that a computer is right tool to do any job simply because it is a computer. Similarly, it's easy to let the computer become your only conduit to information. When, for example, you use the shiny new on-line card catalog your university is so proud of - instead of the old-fashioned paper and ink catalog that's been forcibly retired - you miss the chance to discover something by accident, just riffling through the cards. You take the results as complete and authoritative instead of wondering if there might not be another drawer you should open, much the same way many readers accept anything they see in print as a fact - after all, if it's in print it must be true. Stoll argues using the computer can make you too focused, too fixed on a specific goal.

Throughout the book, Stoll draws heavily on his background and experiences as an astronomer (going back to his grad school years), relating anecdotes about how it is far easier to simply use a computer to crunch numbers than it is to actually think about and look at the data. Assuming you understand your data, a computer is a fantastic tool for manipulating and looking at their many aspects from different vantages. But that's a big assumption: too often computers are used as a substitute for thinking or as a solution in their own right. Stoll argues that the process of using a computer can interfere with the process of understanding what you're doing.

Get Smart, Get A Life! And aren't there things you could be doing that are better ways to spend your time? This is another of Stoll's favorite arguments. He constantly insists that we, his readers, should have lives, hobbies, and personal interaction with those around us, rather than letting our time slip away at 9600 baud. He suggests exploring a cave in person rather than on CD-ROM or via some sort of fantasy game like a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD). I'm sure he realizes this isn't the most realistic option for many people: the computer can provide exposure to things we couldn't ordinarily see or can enable us to interact with people we couldn't possibly meet in person. But there's a balance to maintain: we should take advantage of what vast quantities of data - easily stored, and easily accessed - can offer without letting it define our experience. The trick may be to accept it without losing our sense of depth.

How many hours do you spend in front of your computer a day? How much of that time is spent online? How much do you accomplish doing this? Stoll argues that we should take a serious look at what we get from computers, what we think we are getting, and what we believe we should get. For the most part, we don't know what we want, let alone how we're going to get it. If it ain't broke, don't fix it: will we remember time-tested solutions that are naturally suited for the task at hand? Or do we want to rely on computers for everything we do? Most CD-ROMs on the market today won't be accessible by modern computers in as little as ten years; on the other hand, the technology of a book is likely to remain viable well into the future.

Perhaps we should use computers in the schools for education? School boards use grand-sounding terms like "computer literacy" without defining them. "Computer literacy" used to refer specifically to the ability to program - should all children be expected to learn how to program? Probably not. Perhaps "computer literacy" just means not being scared by the machines, and maybe knowing how to use them to accomplish simple tasks. But whatever the definition, schools are spending a tremendous amount of their often tight budgets on technology that is essentially worthless without decent educational software and teachers who know how to integrate computers into their teaching. Is this the best way to educate kids? Why have so many educators been dazzled by this lure? Sometimes it seems we like technology just because it is technology and don't question its actual value. This can, on occasion, make us a nation (or even a world) of suckers.

Swallow Hard -- Stoll raises several other points throughout the book. Unfortunately, he raises many of the same issues repeatedly. The scenarios differ slightly, but at the center the warnings haven't changed a bit. I found this a bit bludgeoning, but I suspect this is due to my having read the book in just a couple of days. Perhaps stretching the reading over a week or so would help, reading a chapter now and a section later. Stoll gives the reader a lot to think about: allowing some time for digestion might make this book more palatable.

It is important to note that Stoll realizes that what he has written are just his opinions, not the truth with a capital "T." He is not advocating you throw away your computer, and every point in the book is open to argument. I promise that you will react strongly at least once and see holes in some arguments large enough to drive a truck through. But you'll probably also find yourself agreeing with a good deal of what you read, and may even end up modifying some of your beliefs. If you become just a little more cynical about computers and the hype of the so-called "information superhighway," then Cliff Stoll has done his job.

 

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