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    Stoll warns us that the Information Highway is as prone to disaster as its asphalt antecedent

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #291  May 23, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    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, $29.95), subtitled "Second Thoughts on the Information Highway."

    If you 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.

    Take 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?

    The Internet's Project Gutenberg has a small army of volunteers scanning great books of literature, 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 computer screen?

    How many 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 actually 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.

    Are computers really 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 hostility on the Internet to the invasion of online-service customers fresh off the boat from CompuServe or America OnLine.

    Or, 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.

    Ultimately, though, 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 called users?"

    Stoll asks all the sorts of questions that make me--a computer-using, e-mail-reading networker--uncomfortable. In the end, he'd rather see books in libraries than in online catalogues, 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.

    Still, 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 ever-popular Internet scavenger hunt.

    Too often, 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?

    The Information Highway 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.

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