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Second Thoughts on the Information Highway
By Clifford Stoll
Doubleday, 1996, 247 pages

Clifford Stoll believes that too little attention has been given to the bogus claims and hidden costs of new information technologies. In this "free-form meditation" on the future of electronic networking, he offers what he considers a much-needed critical perspective on the "popular fictions" and "pernicious myths" about the on-line world.

Among these are the notions that electronic networking will "oil the wheels of commerce"; that electronic voting and on-line public discourse will remedy the shortcomings of representative democracy; that interactive multimedia represents the educational medium of the future; that electronic communication will bring about a "literary revival"; that e-mail and networks are great places to meet people; that the Internet will foster a new culture of telecommuters; that electronic communication is virtually instantaneous; that there is a vast population on-line; and that new data storage techniques will make traditional libraries obsolete.

Each of these ideas, Stoll writes, is based on either speculation or "a technocratic belief that computers and networks will make a better society." "It ain't necessarily so," he says. "Our networks can be frustrating, expensive, unreliable connections that get in the way of useful work. It is an over promoted, hollow world, devoid of warmth and human kindness. The heavily promoted information infrastructure addresses few social needs or business concerns. At the same time, it directly threatens precious parts of our society, including schools, libraries, and social institutions."

This book has received a good deal of attention, in part because of the contrarian premise suggested by its title. Who in their right mind would argue with the idea that the Internet is going to change our lives for the better? He does offer some important ideas to consider and some vivid examples of how the promises of the Net have been over-hyped. But Stoll's commentary is unoriginal, his treatment largely anecdotal, and his goofy prose, well, mostly irritating. Silicon Snake Oil tries to pass itself off as a meaningful contribution to the ongoing debate over the role of computer networking in our lives, but the book reads like a series of interconnected blog entries, short bursts of prose dashed off on the fly, with little forethought or background research. Stoll himself seems suspiciously worked up by the end of the book. I'm left wondering, does he really believe his own argument or is he just taking it to its own rhetorical limits to see how far he can go?

Copyright 1997 by Scott London. All rights reserved.