Silicon Snake Oil

by Clifford Stoll
Anchor Books; April 1996
reviewed by John W. Herbert

Clifford Stoll, whose excellent first book The Cuckoo’s Egg recounts his accidental discovery of an international hacker spy ring, turns his attention in his second book to the Internet itself. Subtitled Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, Stoll questions the generally accepted notion that the Internet will change our lives, our businesses and the world. Stoll recounts many examples where schools and businesses have invested millions of dollars to access the Internet with questionable results. Instead of investing millions in computers for schools, Stoll asks why not invest millions in teachers? (Stoll even uses a local example. School districts on Vancouver Island are considering hooking up elementary schools to the Internet where, one consultant says, students “can learn about preserving our island’s rain forests by linking electronically with a class in Louisiana studying wetlands. Each learns form the other’s land use issues. This is technology happening now.” Stoll instead suggests renting a bus and driving the students up the island to Clayoquot Sound.) Stoll’s main concern is that the virtual world will supplant the real world, despite the fact the real world is more colourful, vibrant and, well, real. Sure, I can call up a van Gogh panting on my computer screen, but is it as satisfactory as looking at the real thing or even a high quality art book? He is saddened at the lack of courtesy and intelligence in many newsgroups and is concerned that students will become more interested in facts, and not the pursuit of the facts. Even though often amusing and droll, it is a downhearted and sobering commentary on what perhaps should be called the Misinformation Highway.

Originally published by Under the Ozone Hole Number Fourteen – June, 1996

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