Tune In, Log Off and Get a Life!

We've been warned. Catch the computer wave now or drown in the coming digital tsunami. Find an on-ramp to the Internet or end up living in a ghost town, bypassed by the information superhighway. Log on or be left out. Says who? Says everyone, from Vice President Al Gore to the supercilious editors of San Francisco-based Wired magazine, who have proclaimed that cybernauts plugged in to the digital revolution are the "most powerful people on the planet today." It's surf or serf, they say, have Net or have not. Is it so? Are you destined for second-class citizenship if you don't embrace life online? Well, no, says Clifford Stoll. In fact, he adds, it's all a load of cyberhype. In his new book, Silicon Snake Oil-Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, Stoll charges "Internet hucksters" with "unabashed hyperbole"; he trashes the various wells, webs and nets as a "great digital dumpster." "Rather than an information highway," Stoll said recently in an interview on National Public Radio's Tech Nation, "it's a fountain of data and opinions and gossip." Stoll's skepticism cannot be dismissed as a case of sour grapes, because he is himself something of a cyberspace superhero, a road warrior of the infobahn. While working as a systems manager at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in the late '80s, he tracked down a ring of West German computer hackers who were working for the KGB, then chronicled the case in his 1989 bestseller, The Cuckoo's Egg. In that book Stoll describes how the hackers broke into computers belonging to high-security U.S. military facilities and defense contractors. With the oftentimes reluctant assistance of the FBI, the CIA and military agencies, Stoll helped capture the virtual spies and bring them to justice. So Stoll is definitely plugged in. But if he is, as Wired would have it, one of the most powerful people on the planet, he certainly doesn't look the part. He's partial to T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, and he does a good deal of his thinking not in front of a computer but in his north Oakland backyard, an unmanicured expanse with a lily pond, a few fruit trees and dozens of different flowering plants that look as if they were scattered as seeds and left to grow on their own initiative. Sitting amid his botanical profusion, railing against the digital revolution, Stoll's is truly a voice in the wilderness. "It would have been a whole lot easier to write a book about my wonderful times online," he says. "It would have made me popular. Unfortunately, I found it was more important to raise a caution flag, to challenge the accepted dogma that the Internet is necessary for a fulfilled life. I wanted to bring up those questionable and dubious aspects of being infatuated with computers and the Internet." Stoll admits that he was once himself devoted to his online interface. An astrophysicist, he began dipping into the deep waters of the computer well 15 years ago, when the Internet was merely a research scientists' network called the ARPANET. Stoll built his own computer nearly 20 years ago, and he writes about his early fascination with online technology. He calls the precursors of today's global network "an academic toy, a novelty to connect inanimate computers across the continent." He was there when "this plaything" evolved from an occasional source of scientific data into today's huge web of computer communications via the Internet, which services millions of users from all walks of life. In 1986 the Internet linked 60,000 computers. That's now grown to six million, with an estimated 100,000 "newbies" signing on every month. In his book, Stoll notes that "what once felt like a small town is now a congested, impersonal New York City of the mind, where you no longer recognize the person who's talking to you." Stoll thinks life in the electronic world is a dehumanizing existence, full of cold digital chatter and "virtual cacophony," and populated with cyberpunks around every corner. There are those who revel in the Internet's anonymity, taking great delight in "flaming" (insulting) other users; there are "crackers" who break into computer systems, steal digital property and commit other illegal technological transgressions. Escapism has its appeal, Stoll points out, but it has its drawbacks as well: "No surprise that children don't develop good response mechanisms for threatening behavior in the real world -- we can't pull the plug on the bully down the street or the jerk that we have to work alongside. Computers teach us to withdraw, to retreat into the warm comfort of their false reality. Why are drug addicts and computer aficionados both called users?" At a time when the Internet is praised daily, Stoll has been joined by a mere handful of online critics, who range from outright cyberdissers to those who call for a more cautious approach to the pursuit of progress. Neo-Luddite Kirkpatrick Sale, a contributing editor to The Nation and the author of Rebels Against the Future, brands technophobes as the last closeted minority in the country, similar in many ways to the original Luddites, who waged war against the Industrial Revolution. Sale castigates unthinking belief in technological progress as detrimental to our environment and communities, and preaches computer abstinence. Economist Jeremy Rifkin, author of The End of Work, speculates that new automation technologies, which are accelerating a shift from a global "mass labor" system to a highly skilled "elite labor" era, could eventually mean the end of civilization as we know it.Meeting Clifford Stoll, you sense immediately that he's more than a computer jock. He talks effusively about enjoying the smell of popcorn, going to his favorite Chinese restaurant down the street, baking chocolate-chip cookies, walking through his neighborhood to get a cup of coffee, listening to the birds sing. "I won't say anything about teaching astronomy without looking at the sky," he writes in Silicon Snake Oil. "Science is knowing about our environment, not being able to manipulate a computer program." Stoll likens himself to Walt Whitman's "learned astronomer," and his philosophy is indeed reminiscent of that Whitman poem: When I heard the learn'd astronomer, When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me... When...he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, Till rising and gliding out I wander'd off by myself, In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.With his background in physics, Stoll says he's bound to the "real things" of the world. He laments friends who are online 10 to 12 hours a day, noting that they spend a substantial part of their lives enmeshed in the Net-answering e-mail, downloading files, playing games, reading Net news. "They'd take umbrage at the suggestion that they're missing out on something important," Stoll says, "having a rich life." Naturally, Stoll has his detractors. Raising his voice to a whine, he quotes one of their favorite refrains: "'God, he's so old-fashioned.'" He pauses, then begins his response to the allegation. "Well, yeah, I am -- I have a garden, I don't own a car, I have no TV, no suit, no tie, I buy my clothes at the Goodwill and I own a house in the flatlands." Stoll pauses again, then lists his techno-credentials: he has six computers, all interfaced via a local area network; he has "happily" designed several World Wide Web programs; and, with several Internet accounts, he's not in the least bit timid about going online. "If that's old-fashioned," he concludes, "that's pretty bizarre to me." For the record, Stoll says he spends about a half-hour a day online, collecting e-mail and occasionally downloading material. He no longer spends hours a day logged on, explaining in the preface to his latest book that what was once entertaining and challenging soon became a time-consuming chore and distraction. "I no longer see the Internet as essential to my future. I know the Internet can be extremely useful for things such as transferring files. But on the whole, it's a place that offers far less than what is advertised. It's a place where human values are ignored or cheapened. It's a place devoid of warmth, human contact and the essence of life, namely reality." Stoll bristles at the idea that modern problems all have an electronic solution. "On-line addicts point out the importance of networks, communications and home computers," he writes. "They see the Internet as both tool and community, essential to work and home. I flat-out don't believe them. We're told that anyone without a modem is an inept bumpkin, hopelessly behind the times or afraid of the march of technology. Don't buy it, or the cyberbullies will bury us all." During the course of a conversation, Stoll, who is in his mid-40s, becomes at times animated, even fidgety, frequently shifting in his garden chair. He chooses his words carefully, building his argument slowly until he reaches bursting point, when he gushes with exuberance, punctuating his speech with exclamations like hey! look! and zowie! Stoll bemoans the isolation of cyberspace; he says networking is eroding the vital community link of face-to-face conversation. "Naturally people are seeking some kind of substitute. They are looking for a glowing, welcoming community where they can log in, make friends, talk about hobbies and just be anyone they want. Hey! What a tempting thing! I no longer have to look across the fence in my backyard," he says, sweeping his arms at his backyard fence. "All I have to do is click on an icon and I have a neighbor substitute. How sad." Stoll takes great care in distancing himself from the person who his critics have made him out to be-a "digital Luddite, plotting to break silicon knitting frames." He's confident and even hopeful that the Internet will thrive; he gets excited at the thought of faster modems; he enjoys chatting online with friends and colleagues; he celebrates word processing, automatic teller machines, electronic cash registers and travel reservation systems. But he points out that electronic failures-like superhighway traffic jams, software and hardware glitches, and lost e-mail-are not so well publicized. The unreported inadequacies are what Stoll says inspired him to write Silicon Snake Oil. Stoll worries a lot. Computers encourage asocial behavior, he says, they inhibit creativity: "Computers are to creativity as a Xerox machine is to originality." He notes that networking is fostering a new culture of exclusion-presently the vast majority of Internet surfers are middle-to-upper-class white males. Stoll acknowledges that he's not the first to pen a cautionary tale about computers, "but I feel it's time for propeller heads like me to ask questions about what we've created. There's a lot of online discussion about the role of government and censorship and what qualifies as the best computer and the fastest modem, but few people are asking the obvious questions, such as should we even be online and is the Internet becoming a wasteland resembling TV?" At the heart of the problem is our notion of progress, Stoll says, the faith that the world's woes need only the right technological fix. "I wonder if that assumption holds true. Maybe our problem is not that we reject technology, as some people claim, but that we so wholeheartedly embrace it." These days that's not a very popular point of view. In a recent New York Times Magazine article on Wired titled "The Digerati!" writer Paul Keegan observes that Wired is more than a successful publication -- in his estimation, Wired is to the information age what Rolling Stone was to the '60s, "the totem of a major cultural movement." Keegan writes that the digital leaders, for whom Wired has provided a soapbox, live in an intelligent, creative universe, where "science, entrepreneurship and free markets are cool; the mass media, old literary establishments and government meddling are not." Keegan quotes Wired editor and publisher Louis Rossetto, who in his first editorial compared today's social changes to the discovery of fire. "This is the mainstream culture of the 21st century," Rossetto wrote. "It's a new economy, a new counterculture, and beyond politics. In 10 or 20 years, the world will be completely transformed. Everything we know will be different....We're in a phase change of civilizations here." No one promulgates this starry-eyed view more vigorously than Nicolas Negroponte, a columnist for Wired, director of the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the bestselling book Being Digital. Negroponte was one of the featured speakers at the sixth annual "Technology, Entertainment and Design" conference, held in Monterey earlier this year. There Negroponte exclaimed, "When I said there would be one billion people on the Internet by the year 2000, they laughed! That was eight months ago. People aren't laughing now. Gutenberg's press was a drop in the bucket compared to what's happening now." "I'm bringing up topics that a lot of people don't like," Stoll admits. "It's not a good way to win medals on the Internet." He's received e-mail congratulating him on his book, but he's also received his share of nasty responses, rip-roaring flames laced with four-letter epithets. He's been called afraid, he's been slammed as an enemy of human survival. "A number of people disagree so wildly and deeply," he says. "I'm not certain why they're so upset. All I'm doing is questioning the nature of the Internet and online obsession. I can only conclude that there's a deep-set insecurity among some technologists. It's as if they're saying you can't doubt technology. People are still living in that '50s mentality where progress is the most important thing. You have to modernize or be left behind. That is so false." Stoll wonders if the publication of Silicon Snake Oil -- released at a time when the world's love affair with the Internet is practically stifling -- was premature. He's one of a few skeptics who believe that the Internet could simply be a fad. "It will definitely not fade away like the CB radio craze in the '70s," he says. "It will thrive. But within the next few years people will begin to see that it won't live up to most of its promises. Many people believe they're going to make a lot of money on the Internet. I think most will be disappointed." Eventually, Stoll predicts, even kids reared in cyberspace will become bored with life online. Stoll caresses the petal of a poppy growing next to his chair. "How can people think they can use their computers as a substitute for real life and community?" he wonders aloud. He looks around his yard, gesturing with both arms. "These are the real things. The flowers, the birds, the butterflies. If you spend so much of your life logged online, you're going to miss out on all of this. In so many ways computers are as irrelevant as the moons of Jupiter-hey, a romance, an afternoon at the Coliseum watching the Oakland A's, pruning rose bushes, wiring an electrical outlet." In spite of his chilly reception from computer boosters, Stoll's views have been getting some attention recently. In addition to interviews on the CBS Evening News and the NBC news magazine Dateline, his book has been widely written up. One of the earliest reviews was by San Francisco Examiner science writer Keay Davidson in his weekly column, "Down to a Science." He liked Silicon Snake Oil, felt it brought up legitimate arguments, but ultimately he thought Stoll's case to be exaggerated. "I think Cliff's questioning is a good thing," Davidson explains. "After all, we've had a history of overselling new technology -- it wasn't too long ago that we were being told nuclear power would transform our world into a bountiful utopia. We all know what happened with that. Then there was space -- I remember watching the movie 2001 when I was young. That date is only six years away and we're not even close to having colonies on the moon." Davidson says he genuinely likes and respects Stoll (he loved The Cuckoo's Egg), but he feels his case is overstated -- accusing Internet buffs of adopting computers as a substitute for love and relationships, for instance. So is Stoll just a rabid ex-junkie? "You mean the fervor of the converted?" Davidson says. "Like an extreme AA member who's convinced everyone is a latent alcoholic? Maybe. Maybe Cliff is talking about feelings he once had and rejected and is now projecting onto others." Stoll balks at the suggestion that he's leading a crusade against the Internet. "Like I'm picking up a Bible and thumping people with it? No. I recognize damn good reasons for having and using computers. Some people, like shut-ins, depend on them day in and day out. I'm not saying follow me. I see my responsibility being to ask questions. It's the nature of science to do your own research and then make your own conclusions. Don't take my opinion. Judge for yourself, but exert some skepticism. "I have no problem with computers. It's the culture of computers that gives me the heebie-jeebies. I object to that techno-arrogance that says if you don't have an e-mail address you're nobody and you don't count. What's hip today may be hype tomorrow." Stoll reserves his heaviest dose of vitriol for what he calls "the Wired mentality." He likens the content to the vapid chatter on the Internet. "But what I'm most curious about," he says, "is why -- if fundamentally you believe that being online is so wonderful -- is your publication printed on paper? Might it be that print is indeed more powerful than anything that comes across the modem?" Steve Steinberg, an editor at Wired who reviewed Silicon Snake Oil, thinks Stoll's book is loaded with biased, one-sided arguments -- he argues that people who travel in virtual reality develop a heightened awareness of their real surroundings. Nonetheless, he says, Stoll has important things to offer. "No one else is saying that the emperor has no clothes. Plus, some people do spend way too much time online." Perhaps the tide is turning. People -- and, more important, the media -- are beginning to ask questions. Recently Ted Koppel's Nightline served as a forum for a discussion of the pros and cons of the Internet. A San Francisco Examiner business feature reported that bold predictions for Apple's online service, eWorld, have rung hollow. An editorialist on KQED-FM concluded that surfing the Internet can be as passive as watching TV. So maybe Stoll is wrong. Perhaps the release of his book was perfectly timed. Either way, he figures his perspective is still a minority viewpoint. "I wish more people would feel ambivalent about computer culture. But ambivalence doesn't sell well. It works better in print and online when people make extreme statements. But I don't live that way. My life is multisided. I see many points of view and I want to explore them all." Stoll picks an apricot from a tree in his backyard, says it tastes a bit too tart, too soon to pick the rest. Then he watches with pleasure as a hummingbird darts into a nearby tree. Walking back to his house, he offers a few plums from another tree. They're sweet, he says, ripe and ready for the jam jars he'll be filling tomorrow.

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