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Stoll, Silicon Snake Oil (abstract)

Clifford Stoll "wave[s] a yellow flag" in response to the ever-growing hype about the information superhighway in his new book, Silicon Snake Oil. Chapter after chapter, he takes up and argues against each of the claims made by the media, computer "experts" and the public about the overwhelming benefits of being online. Stoll, owner of "five computers and no car," resists taking the position of the anti-technological Luddite in his critique of the Net. Rather, he maintains that, as a member of a networked community, he has many reservations about the promises being made by technophiles.

Stoll doubts the supposed ability of network communication to improve education, accelerate communication, save time, and make research easier. His critiques of these popular claims are clever and entertaining, mixing everyday examples from his own life with a hearty dose of common sense, which makes his arguments compelling. Stoll believes that online communication is unrealistically being touted as a cure-all, similar to the snake oil treatments once sold as medicine by quack doctors. For anyone who has a working familiarity with the Internet, the World Wide Web, Usenet, and email, his allegations all too often ring true. Mailboxes do get clogged with junk email, software and hardware do become obsolete almost as fast as one can buy them, setup costs are prohibitive, systems crash or are too slow to use--the list goes on.

For me, however, Stoll's most compelling point is his observation that "every hour that you're behind the keyboard is sixty minutes that you're not doing something else" (14). Real life often gets left behind in the obsession with virtual interactions, as people sift through more and more information each day, taken from the Web, email messages, online publications, news groups, bulletin boards, etc.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about Silicon Snake Oil has to do with what Stoll intends in writing this book. He certainly does not believe or advocate that the technology should disappear; nor does he appear to be signing off from his own accounts. Instead he seems to be issuing a challenge to Net users to reevaluate their own time spent online, and going on record as a dissenting voice in what has until now seemed to be a unanimous and utopic projection of a computer-networked future. (Kim Surkan.)


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Michael Hancher

Department of English, University of Minnesota

URL: http://umn.edu/home/mh/ebibks3.html

Comments to: mh@umn.edu

Created 13 June 1995

Last revised 17 September 1996




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