Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Back from the Net: listen to the tale of one who has seen the future, and isn't so sure

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #290  May 16, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    If you've been reading this column for the past month or two, you may have noticed that I'm somewhat ambivalent about technology. Businesses have spent billions of dollars on computers, networks, telecommunications and the like over the past decade, but haven't always been able to show clear productivity gains.

    I've received mixed feedback. Some readers, mostly those still running WordPerfect on an amber-screened 286, have felt pleased to have someone they thought was "on their side." On the other hand, another reader felt I had missed the point--that the Internet, for example, was going to have a bigger impact on business than anything since the fax machine.

    Then you have Clifford Stoll, who makes me look like an ever-optimistic futurist. You may have heard of him. A few years ago, his book, The Cuckoo's Egg, was a best-seller, a true mystery story of how Cliff, a grad-student astronomer at UCal-Berkeley turned computer-network manager, discovered that his accounts were out by $0.75. Tracking down the discrepancy led him to a mysterious hacker who was logging onto Stoll's network and using it to wander through the predecessor to the Internet, aiming for U.S. military computers. Eventually, the trail led to Germany and contacts with the FBI and CIA. German hackers were trading their findings to KGB contacts for cash and cocaine. A death under unexplained circumstances, an arrest, conviction, and jail sentence resulted from Stoll's sleuthing.

    Since then, Stoll has continued his multiple careers, sometime astronomer, sometime computer networker, sometime consultant on hacking and network security. Now he's written a second book, Silicon Snake Oil (Doubleday, 1995, $29.95), subtitled "Second Thoughts on the Information Highway." He describes the experience of taking a laptop on holiday--sitting alone in a darkened room, responding to his e-mail while his friends are calling for him. At that moment, after two decades on the Net, he begins to question whether computers and networks really have enhanced the quality of our lives.

    His book is chatty, anecdotal--perhaps too much so for some tastes--but it raises serious questions, ones that are often too quickly brushed aside. Take e-mail, for instance. While I've tended to wonder whether the Internet is really full of short-term profit potential for most businesses, I've assumed that e-mail is a clear winner. Stoll raises a number of objections. First, he points out that it isn't particularly reliable. As an experiment, he had his brother mail 100 postcards from Buffalo, N.Y., to California. It took an average of three days or so for the cards to arrive, and they all turned up. At the same time, Stoll tracked a large number of e-mail messages sent from various places. They arrived much faster, but five per cent were lost.

    He's not the first to point out that e-mail isn't particularly private--as with cell phone conversations, we assume that our privacy is protected by law, when in fact it's protected by neither law nor technology. (Yes, I know about public-key encryption, but that's simply too cumbersome for most users' communications.)

    As well, he suggests that the transient nature of the medium itself tends to result in some bad habits--sloppy spelling and grammar, for instance. It's too easy to dash something off and send it without taking the trouble to proofread. The same tendencies result in e-mail that is often poorly thought-out, and in flames. (Flames, for those who've managed to avoid them, are angry, insulting messages--often the result of some perceived slight, trivial error, or misstep in the twisted etiquette of cyberspace.)

    Stoll suggests that electronic correspondence, lacking the cues of more embodied conversation and the time investment a real paper letter requires, tends to degenerate too easily. Like other aspects of computerization, Stoll might add, e-mail is quick and cheap, but unreliable, and ultimately, a cheapened experience compared to what it replaces: actual communication between people.

    Stoll doesn't stop with e-mail, however. The fabled Information Highway, he suggests, may be rich in information (poorly organized though it might be), but desperately poor in knowledge or wisdom. Students or business-people can use computer networks to find lots of facts, but much less analysis. Even the facts, he points out, may be less than one would want. The Internet Gopher tool, for example, does let you browse the electronic catalogues of university libraries around the world, or even those of national institutions like the U.S. Library of Congress. (That's assuming that the network is working up to speed, of course, and that you're not the one user too many who gets locked out of the system.) But that only lets you search the catalogues: you can't actually take out the book, and you can't browse the stacks. If you know what you're looking for, you may be able to track it down, but your chances of finding something by the serendipity of wandering by bookshelves disappears.

    More on this next week

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan