us that the Information Highway is as prone to disaster as its asphalt
by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published
in Business in
Vancouver , Issue #291 May 23, 1995 High Tech
Last week, I was writing about Clifford Stoll,
author of The Cuckoo's Egg, a real-life computer thriller,
and more recently of Silicon Snake Oil (Doubleday, 1995,
subtitled "Second Thoughts on the Information Highway."
think I have
some reservations about the Internet, Stoll makes me look like a Microsoft
public relations chief. Stoll has a lot of experience on this ground,
and after two decades on the Net, he's not altogether convinced that
computers and networks have given us a better way of life.
browsing for information
on the Net. You can browse through titles until your eyes cross, and
in some cases you can actually get content over the Net, but not if
you need something from before, say, 1990. Only a tiny fraction of
the vast backlog of printed material will ever make it into digital
form, and if you do get it, are you going to want to read it?
Gutenberg has a small army of volunteers scanning great books of
science, and the like (anything that's in the public domain). Carefully
proofread, these are uploaded onto the Net and made freely available
as digital texts. The hard-working volunteers have managed a mixed
bag of two hundred books since 1971, but hope for 10,000 volumes by
2001. Still, are you likely to want to read Moby Dick on your
of you have
been frustrated operating a computer, recently? (Don't all put up
your hands.) Yes, it's easier than a decade or so ago, but is it
as easy as it should be? Watch new users open window after window
until their computer grinds to a halt-- because they didn't know where
their word-processor went after another program's window covered it
over--and then spend an hour or so (at long-distance rates) lost in
the maze of automated phone systems and hold queues trying to get help
from a software or hardware vendor.
so much more complex than, say, automobiles or televisions? Stoll
has a lot of fun knocking over the myth of user-friendliness. And
he points out that computer users are often as unsympathetic to new
users as the hardware itself--as witnessed by the recent bout of
on the Internet to the invasion of online-service customers fresh
off the boat from CompuServe or America OnLine.
looking at the economics
of the Net: who's really paying for all the drivel of UseNet
groups, or when I send an e-mail message to New Zealand? It may be
that a drastic financial restructuring of the Net will force us all
to stop and think before posting junk.
Stoll's critique is aimed at people--how computers and networks allow
some people to isolate themselves from the world around them--from
nature, family, and friends. In a book full of one-liners, my favourite
is his rhetorical question: "Why are both drug users and computer aficionados
all the sorts
of questions that make me--a computer-using, e-mail-reading
In the end, he'd rather see books in libraries than in online
teachers in classrooms rather than math programs, and sales people
who are well-informed about the products they're selling, rather than
World Wide Web home pages.
even he hasn't
quite reached the point of calling on us all to smash our machines
and retreat to the communes. He's still a computer-using astronomer,
who spends the first day of every month participating in the
Internet scavenger hunt.
in this century,
though, we've leaped into change because it was possible, rather than
pausing to think through the consequences. The physical highway system,
built in the 20 years after the Second World War, let us drive from
place to place faster and more cheaply. But did anyone predict suburbs,
the death of rail transit, urban sprawl, or gridlock?
is an overused metaphor, but Stoll would suggest that we learn some
lessons from our hastily thought out implementation of the "real"
highway system before blindly rushing to create its digital counterpart.