Alex's Reviews > Silicon Snake Oil

Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll
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M 50x66
's review

it was ok

I first came across Clifford Stoll while reading the excellent
Cuckoo's Egg. It's a griping real life story about how he discovered
and chased down one of the early Internet hackers. This is why when I
was in a second hand bookstore I picked up a copy of Silicon Snake
Oil. The subtitle, "Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" gives
an indication about what it's about.

The first thing to note is this is a book that really shows it age.
Published in 1995 it was when the Internet was moving from a cosy
academic network used by scientists to the first commercial ISPs and early
influx of AOLers. This when the World Wide Web was still know by the browser
Mosaic. As will soon become apparent 13 years ago counts as ancient
history when it comes to the 'net.

The books central thesis is one of scepticism of the promises that the
advocates of the so called Information Superhighway where making. Stoll deals with the
issues of information overload, signal to noise on Usenet and whether
this technology will really turn people into infonauts or just passive
consumers of the fire hose of information coming from another glowing
box on our desks. He saves most of his reservations for the trend at
the time to computerise education and worries the educational benefits
of computers and 'net access are being oversold. Time and again he
worries we will turn into one dimensional beings denied the
"authentic" experiences of actually seeing, touching, smelling and
interacting with things in the real world. There may be some
interesting ideas that are still relevant for discussion today however
it's hard to tell because of the numerous predictions that in
hindsight completely wrong.

I don't blame Stoll for this. Predicting the future is always a tricky
business. The 'net has grown up so fast and is consistently surprising
the world with new inovations growing out of it. He's also not a
reactionary Luddite, he "looks forward to the time when our Internet
reaches every town and trailer park". However at the time he wrote
this book he was clearly having a crisis of faith in what the
futurists where promising.

A few illustrative predictions are worth quoting. When discussing
shopping he asserts "no electronic shopping can compare with the
variety, quality, and experimental richness of a visit to even the most
mundane malls". This is before Amazon gave the bricks and mortar book
shops a serious run for their money. He talks of the frustration of
searching for information by keywords in titles of documents through
various gopher services. This is before the all powerful Google
"solved" the problem of search by using links to information to rank
the usefulness of a page.

One thing that becomes clear is many of the obstacles he mentions has either
been solved or is in the process of improving. The ease of use of
computers which is another bugbear of his, usability has been late in
the game of software development but people like Apple take problems
like getting Grandma on the 'net very seriously. Humans have proved
remarkably ingenious at solving seemingly insurmountable problems.

There are some areas he flags for concern that may still be
relevant today. He wonders if the instant response of email is
affecting our ability to write properly. If the ability to self
publish will drown the 'net is a sea of dross. If social interactions
on the screen can ever replace physically meeting people. However so
much of this is mixed in with problems I know are now solved it's hard
to not just write them off as excessive pessimism on Stoll's part.

In summary I would recommend reading the book if you want to remind
yourself of where the 'net came from and what the early days looked
like. However if your looking for a clear treatise on the potential
downsides of the information world I suggest looking for a more recent
book on the subject.

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Reading Progress

April 6, 2009 – Shelved
April 6, 2009 –
page 120
Started Reading
April 7, 2009 – Finished Reading

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