Just Who's Selling What Here?
Silicon Snake Oil; Second Thoughts on the Information Highway
Doubleday, Toronto, 1995 (April, 1995). 249p. $29.95 CDN ISBN 0-385-41993-7.
Reviewed by Dean Tudor
Geez, Stoll sure knows how to hurt a guy . . . the guy called Internet.
Snake oil salesmen indeed.
Unfortunately, Stoll uses several different kinds of false logic
to present his case. The basic error he makes is to confuse (probably
deliberately) the idea that computers can extend, improve and ENHANCE
our current life's activities, with the premise that computers are
REPLACING such activities. No person should ever believe that computers
will replace ALL existing card games, ALL existing board games,
ALL TV shows, ALL shopping, ALL gossiping, etc. If such a person
does believe this, then he/she probably deserves to be replaced!
Actually, a close reading of this book shows that Stoll rails more
against computers than against the Internet. The subtitle is quite
I enjoyed Stoll's first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, which described
how he tracked down East German hackers in 1986. It was first-rate:
I stayed up all night to read it. However, his next book is a real
snoozer: I could barely stay awake. The style is self-effacing;
the rant is rambling. And he has a real problem dealing with the
Internet: he cannot stay focussed. By that I mean, he cannot sign
onto his computer account and do whatever work he has to do - he
wanders through Net sites, downloads files and graphics, and generally
just plays around. BUT, THAT'S HIS PROBLEM, not mine. So, he begins
to attribute his weaknesses to the rest of us, and suggests that
we are all like that. His lack of focus pervades the book. There
are many non sequitur paragraphs, and when he has reached a minimum
number for a chapter, he ends the chapter and begins another. His
editor should have made him concentrate more. He claims to have
written this book with pen and paper (I would have used pencil and
paper), with a typewriter, and with a word processor. But, he must
also have used a tape recorder: how else to explain his stream-of-consciousness
prose? Actually, he complains that computer usage is a direct result
of our 45 years' exposure to television (both use the cathode-ray
tube), but he is himself directly affected by this exposure. You
can see it in his writing style.
Hey, I haven't really said anything about the book's contents yet,
have I? A few years ago, when Ryerson Polytechnic University grudgingly
doled out e-mail accounts to select students who grovelled, a journalism
major came to me begging to get an account. I asked him why he needed
it? He said he didn't want to be left out. And, this is the whole
story of the appeal of the Internet: not being left out of the global
village. And, that means having to put up with all types of people,
who Stoll cannot stand. He abhors yahoos who scream and yell on
the Internet or don't know what they are doing. "Computer and
online services frustrate virtually everyone," he writes. So
why does he write a book? Most of what he says can be reduced to
a cogent magazine article. But then he wouldn't get paid as much,
nor would he be eligible to get scores of after-dinner gigs at several
What he should have written is a book called How to Cope with
Sensory Overload, beginning with some hints on how to learn
programs. That's the problem area: getting people to RTFM [Read
the Fucking Manual, standard Netspeak]. But that wouldn't sell books.
Stoll is not very helpful in his harangue. Indeed, he sets up roadblocks
by playing games. He wants us to find out which sections of the
book were written by pen, by typewriter or by computer. But, he
tells us the answers in code; if we want to know, we've got to crack
the code. I don't need such games in my life. The bibliography has
a list of books, with authors and titles but no other identification
tags. Again, a game; we are supposed to find out which ones are
in bookstores (and presumably still available for sale), which ones
are in libraries (and presumably out of print), and which ones are
available for free on the Internet. For me, that was an easy game.
But, there are better books out there on the Internet, including
The Online World by Odd de Presno, not mentioned by Stoll.
He does list Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination
of Television (which is a first-rate book), saying that it also
applies to computers. Well, of course, this is nothing new - although
he passes it off as a new idea; monitors are TV sets, and with Mosaic,
you can get video and audio just like TV.
Stoll proclaims: "Life in the real world is far more interesting,
far more important, far richer than anything you'll ever find on
a computer screen". That's pretty obvious, and I agree. But,
so what? Why doesn't he scream about watching TV, which occupies
the average person 16 hours a week! He's already written that computers
and television are alike, so why not rant at both? He doesn't.
It was fashionable to tout the Internet a mere few years ago. Writers
who didn't know much about it, raved about it. Now, it is fashionable
to badmouth the Internet. Writers who DO know how it works, loudly
proclaim how bad it is. Why? Because these writers have been shunted
aside on the highway. The student has succeeded the teacher, and
there is overcrowding.
Stoll writes about the Internet, but it is not MY Internet. His
main topics are Usenet (with lots of noise and senseless garbage
talk), chatlines (lots of screaming), shopping by e-mail, and playing
games. Sure, all of these add clutter. Sure, I'd like to get rid
of them. But, I'm not going to let the Internet take the heat, not
MY part of the Internet; not the direct e-mail, not the mailing
lists, not the web sites with text files.
I'm not even sure when this book was written. Some of it is already
out of date (you cannot nail a moving target like the Internet).
Figures relate to January, 1994. He mentions Mosaic, but not its
successor Netscape (the commercial and faster version of Mosaic).
He doesn't even mention Lynx, which is a text program for FTP/Web/Gopher
access to files that I use. What's wonderful about it is that there
are no silly graphics to slow down access. I can get my stuff in
minutes, since it is only text. Surely, he must know about Lynx.
Using Lynx would solve a lot of his complaints.
His predictions are astute: networks will be part of the school
system, there will be hundreds of video channels over cable, the
Internet will be a commercial endeavour, there will be government
regulation of growth and content, the major lines will be part of
the telcos. These are inevitable as the Internet matures, I agree.
Unfortunately, he doesn't follow up on any of these with any kind
of meaningful discussion of the pros and cons, or what we can do
about it all.
Snake Oil? Well, I think Stoll himself is trying to sell us some
snake oil. He's not really warning us of difficulties or cautioning
us to be more exact while on the Internet. He's not very helpful
at all in our dealings with computer networks. Instead, he wants
us to abandon ship, like the rats that we are. Get off the Internet,
get a life. He's just trying to sell us the idea that we should
stay away from computers so that only he and his friends can have
it all to themselves. And, that's the worst kind of elitism.
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