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by Elizabeth Regina

IT'S IMPOSSIBLE for any old net hand not to agree with some of Clifford Stoll's points in Silicon Snake Oil, newly out in paperback. To sum it up: Stoll's been on the net a long time and he's peeved with the recent hype. He makes some home truths about unwise use of computerization and networking and neatly debunks some of the areas of maximum hype inflation. So why am I uncomfortable about endorsing his overall view?

Stoll's frustration with the contradictions of the computer world becomes a palpable thing: systems which are supposed to make it faster and more efficient to work bog people down in their own intricacies; networks which are meant to encourage communication generate flaming and promote slacking off. His anger with the nonsense that's spoken about the wired world causes him to flail aimlessly himself.

Stoll admits in his introduction that he's not assembling a crystal-clear argument. He calls the book a "free-form meditation" and adds "I apologize to those who expect a consistent position from me. I'm still rearranging my mental furniture." This pre-emptive weasel is necessary because, although he's uncomfortable with current trends and fitfully analyzes his unease, the focus is vague and the arguments repetitive and sometimes contradictory.

Stoll attacks the drive to computerize any and all data systems without concern for the consequences. For instance, he's eloquent about the destruction of traditional library card catalogs and systems. Putting a wall of terminals between readers and books, in community libraries especially, will probably turn out to have been a bad mistake. He rails against the trend to move budgets away from book acquisition and librarian salaries and toward high-tech filing systems and terminals.

He also debunks multimedia:

The very things promised by interactive multimedia, namely interaction and a combination of media, seem to be present in everyday productions. Isn't a football game interactive? Fifty thousand cheering fans in the stadium certainly stir the players on to better performance. And surely a ballet is multimedia, combining dance, music, lighting and motion. [...] Interactive computer entertainment gives you a choice of many different outcomes, all preprogrammed. The experience is about as interactive as a candy machine.

Another section is a critique of the use of computers to educate younger children. I'm not equipped to say whether he's right or wrong here, since I'm neither parent nor teacher, but certainly he makes some points that ought to be addressed somewhere.

What makes me distrust him is his romanticization of pre-computer and non-computer worlds. In some cases I know very well what he thinks he's talking about and that he's got it wrong. He sneers at computerized graphic design, for example, claiming that it's all a matter of recycling other people's images and that the outcome will inevitably be sterile pastiche. He finds an old Linotype man who gives a neat soundbite quote against the excesses of modern typography. Anyone in the design world would see that he's dismissing a whole range of skills and trades with a few ignorant sentences about one style of design. He also fails to note a major and important shift: the illustrator or designer or typographer often owns the computer herself now rather than being a wage slave to whoever owns the means of production.

So much is going on that Stoll can't see or refuses to see. In a telling bit of classic luddite prose, he says:

Past generations of millwrights, blacksmiths, and machinists are almost gone. Theirs was a real workplace, of forges, lathes, and anvils. [...] Today, gone is craft, replaced by career. Instead of workers on our feet, we've become sedentary professionals, entering data into computers.

Oh, give me a break. My mother was a lathe operator and her father was a blacksmith, and while I respect the kind of skills they had, I know that their jobs were hardly noble callings, and that when I'm working I bring to bear as much skill, with as much or as little dignity as you care to give to the notion of work, as they did. Romanticizing the industrial revolution at the expense of the current information wave is just that--it's not well informed, and it's just a matter of stubbornly refusing to see the skills and effort being used in the present.

Stoll brings the same frustrating combination of acuteness and dimness to his critique of the net. He admits his addiction to email and Usenet while sneering at their shortcomings with transparent self-dislike. But what does he offer as an alternative? Stoll's real life seems to be a mild-mannered, geeky assemblage of food and folksiness. What turned me off most was the recurrent chatty anecdotes that were supposed to illustrate the immediacy of real life as compared to the sterile electronic world of the net. Yet his remarks are both funny and true about the dubious value of hooking workers up to the net so that they spend half their time idly reading Usenet and exchanging emails. (Guilty, your honor.)

Stoll gives us a long diatribe about the worthlessness, chaos and vapidity of the information available on the net, as well as mentioning several times the shallowness that email has brought to human relationships. He seems not to have noticed that the net will always partly reflect what you bring to it. If you cultivate articulate, amusing correspondents you will get good email. If you approach the web with a well-defined quest for information, usually you'll find something useful--and sorting opinion from fact is something people had to do long before the net existed.

Yes, people should cultivate their "real lives." No, the net will not latch on to your brain and suck you dry unless you want it to. Stoll has some good points but he always manages to undermine them by over-romanticizing the opposite argument. It's a pity, because he has some worthwhile arguments. Maybe the book should've been one of those 200-line posts everyone skips on Usenet.


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