Chapter 28


THE SKEPTIC

Cliff Stoll


THE SOFTWARE DEVELOPER (Bill Gates):
There's certainly a need, as people get caught up in the excitement of all this stuff, to have someone who can take the opposing viewpoint and point out, in some cases, correctly, how, 'hey, it's still all fairly hard to use and still fairly expensive. Let's not use sight of what was good about the previous ways of doing things.' There's definitely a role there and I think he's done very well positioning himself for that devil's advocate-type role. Sometimes I think he underestimates how, over the next few years, the industry will do a very good job getting rid of some of the limitations he criticizes. His book, Cuckoo's Egg, was my favorite of his two books.


Cliff Stoll is an astrophysicist and the author of Silicon Snake Oil (1995) and The Cuckoo's Egg (1994).


"When I'm online, I'm alone in a room, tapping on a keyboard, staring at a cathode-ray tube. I'm ignoring anyone else in the room. The nature of being online is that I can't be with someone else. Rather than bringing me closer to others, the time that I spend online isolates me from the most important people in my life, my family, my friends, my neighborhood, my community."

Cliff Stoll didn't think this way back in 1994. One of a large and varied group of weekend guests, Cliff was sitting in front of my computer in the study, typing like a man possessed, on a beautiful, sunny June afternoon.

"Come outside, Cliff," I said, " and join the party."

"Can't, John," he said. "Been away from home three days and already I have at least 250 email messages to answer. It's going to take me all afternoon."

"Are they from people you know?" I inquired.

"No," he replied, "but they took the time to write and I feel a personal obligation to answer each and every one."

Drastic action was required. "Cliff," I barked, shifting into my U.S. Army command mode, "you will get off-line, you will turn the computer off, and you will move your ass outside. Now!"

In 1967, Marshall McLuhan faced a similar predicament as he dealt with the negative impact of sudden fame. When I asked him how he found the time to keep up his voluminous reading and also answer mail, he exclaimed with a laugh, "Answer my mail! Just reading it would take ten hours a day." Compound this situation with digital communications and the accessibility we all have to each other, and you begin to see how Cliff, since the publication of his best-selling The Cuckoo's Egg, had gone from Internet God to Digital Martyr.

"Cliff is often given short shrift because he is acting as a very spontaneous critic of the Net hype," says Mike Godwin, counsel for the EFF and Cliff's close friend. "What a lot of people don't realize is that, first, Cliff is coming to this position from a base of knowledge about all the positive things the Net can be. The second is that he is not nearly so negative as he is commonly presented as being. What he wants us to do is ask critical question‹not to assume, for example, that putting computers in the schools or an Internet connection in the schools is necessarily positive. That's quite salutary. In Cliff you see one of the first people who had to grapple with a wide range of ethical and security issues on the Net, and these are expressed in both his first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, and his current one, Silicon Snake Oil. Unlike virtually every other critic of online communications, Cliff knows what he's talking about. He's used the medium. He deserves a lot of credit."

Cliff walked outside with me, away from the sea of digital information in which he was drowning. I don't know if it was the beauty of the day, the attention he received from the bright teenagers who had read his first book, or just the walk alone with a dog and his thoughts through the pine forests and cornfields, but Cliff never went back into the study. He didn't answer his email. He didn't even finish reading it. When he left for the airport two days later, he handed me drafts of the first two chapters of a new book inspired by the experience of the past two days, which quickly evolved into Silicon Snake Oil.

Two years have passed, during which time Cliff has become a father ‹ twice. He's the one who stays home and takes care of the babies. The digital agenda has faded into the background. "I love computers and I use them all the time," he says. "I've got a half-dozen computers in my house. But this cult of computing gives me the heebie-jeebies, the sense that if you don't have an electronic-mail address, if you don't have your own customized homepage on the World Wide Web, if you don't have your own domain name online, then you're being left behind, that progress is going on without you. Human kindness, warmth, interaction, friendship, and family are far more important than anything that can come across my cathode-ray tube. While I admire the insights of many of the people in the world of computing, I get this cold feeling that I speak a different language."

Cliff Stoll is "The Skeptic."


THE SKEPTIC (Cliff Stoll):
For a scientist, the Internet is hard to get along without. It lets me send messages from one place to another, lets me pick up on the latest happenings in astronomy, and lets me share not just my thoughts, but data and hypotheses with other astronomers, whether about Jupiter or climatic change. On the other hand, I have been able to do all of those things quite well without the Internet. People did astronomy, science, and physics‹damn good astronomy, science, and physics‹without computers and without the Internet. There is a lot of talk about how essential the Internet, electronic mail, and Internet relay chat are for doing science and research, but it's hard for me to point to an example where great astronomy, great research, came out because of the Internet. For physics and science and research, do I need immediate communications? Or might it be more important to have a sense of what is worthwhile, what is important and what isn't?

In astronomy, this means I want to think hard about the messages that I receive. I want quality stuff coming across my computer and into my work life. In that sense, the Internet might not be so great for me. It brings me terrific stuff, but it also brings me loads of drivel and dross and mediocrity. My computer doesn't know how to separate the two, so I end up having to work hard to figure out what's good stuff and what's lousy stuff. Rather than saving me time by providing fast communications, the Internet is wasting my time by forcing me to edit out lots of valueless dreck from a constant stream of messages. At the same time, the immediacy of the Internet takes away my time to reflect on my work. It makes me react to what's happening inside of my computer and across the network, rather than think about what's happening in the universe at large and on the planets that I'm studying.

The Internet is said to be growing from its present infancy into a wonderland where there will be commerce and lot of information. I don't believe it. The Internet provides lots and lots of data, but data is just words and bits and bytes and numbers. Unlike information, data has no content, it has no context, it has little utility, it lacks accuracy, it lacks pedigree, and it lacks timeliness. Most of all, it lacks usefulness. The bulk of what comes across my modem connection simply has little use for me.

This information highway, which delivers damned little information, is said to be the roadway to power in progress. After all, information is power. I don't believe it! Information isn't powerful. Information isn't power. Powerful people are seldom informed. Who's powerful? Look at some of the powerful politicians. Presidents. Prime Ministers. Generals of armies. They don't sit behind a computer reading stuff off the Internet! Hey, who's got the most information? Librarians do! It's hard to imagine a group of people with less power than librarians. Information is power? The whole idea is false.

Nor is there a connection between information and knowledge. Knowledge, dare I say wisdom, which we ought to be seeking, is, for the most part, not information, but a sense of understanding, a sense of judgment, a sense of when to ignore information. Moreover, what turns the cranks in my head is not information, but ideas, hypotheses, creative solutions that I might not have come across before. I can't get those from a computer. I can get those only by thinking.

The Internet is perhaps the most oversold, overpromoted communications system ever created. It is little more than an uppity telephone system. In fact, it's somewhat less than that. At least on a telephone system I can call anyone I want to, worldwide. I can't do that online! I can't call my mom on the Internet. She doesn't use a computer. I can telephone her. The telephone system reaches 98 percent of the people in North America. How many are on the Internet‹10 million, 3 million? Suppose it's 30 million. That's only 10 percent of the population.

The World Wide Web makes it easier to graze around the Internet. The Web makes it even faster to switch channels on the Internet. On the Web I can jump anywhere I want, quickly, so I'm told. But most of the time when I jump from one place to another, what I get is waiting, waiting, waiting. I watch a little ball turn around, a little clock, and I watch my life dribble off my modem at 9600 baud while something is being downloaded or some network connection is going slow. We are told that someday this will be fixed. Sure, the SS Titanic might come into New York Harbor as well. The French may repay the war debt. DeSoto may come out with a new car in another year or two.

An essential aspect to studying, to thinking, is context. It's not enough to look at just a sentence in a book or even a paragraph in a book. I want to read the whole book, to get the ebb and flow of the storyteller, to understand where the story is leading. I don't want just little bits from things. The nature of the Web and hypertext destroys context. We literally surf, from one place to another, without going to any depth. If television is the vast wasteland, then the Web is a phenomenally surface-shallow hole of mediocrity. The home pages that I find are monuments to narcissism. I suspect this infatuation with the fad will decline and people will find some use for it. Like the Internet, the Web is a terrific solution, a great solution to a nonexistent problem. Someday we will find problems that the Web solves.

It follows from a sense of economic principles that publishing online is cheap. At the same time, the cost of paper is skyrocketing. A curious phenomenon is that every year publishing online gets cheaper, and publishing on paper gets more expensive. A real obvious result of this is being ignored by almost everyone‹namely, that people who have valuable things to say that others are willing to pay money to hear will publish in print. Those who have things to say that have least value, the least commercial value, will publish for free, online! It's Gresham's Law: bad money drives out the good. In a system like the Internet, where most of the coinage is made out of lead, where most of the files have little value, one would be a fool to spend gold coins. You hoard the gold coins and spend your lead nickels on the Internet, since it's the land of the cheap, the home of the free.

Look at the vast amount of governmental data. Stuff that we would walk past if it were on a bookshelf is online. It will be just as boring online as it was when it was on paper. The stuff that is truly valuable, the stuff that you need to know and that you're willing to pay money to find out, will get published in print‹because copyrights can be enforced, because there's a sense of permanence about it, because a book is blessed with the veneer of authenticity.

I suspect that, rather than ending publishing, the Web and the Internet will take the lousier manuscripts out of the bookstores and put them online. Good authors will continue to publish real books. Science fiction authors will continue to yearn to get published in hardback. Nonfiction authors will continue to smile when they see their book on a bookshelf. Why would somebody publish terrific ideas online? Somebody else will swipe them and publish them. It happens in science all the time.

Publishing online probably will flop, but who am I to say? Publishers and authors have not made any money off electronic rights other than those to computer games. Nobody's made any money off the Internet rights to anything. But then nobody's ever published a book online, largely because try as you might, you can't read it from a computer. A book is one fantastic device that has been honed and evolved over the centuries into an potent tool for information. It's user-friendly, it's portable, and it's cheap. We have a terrific distribution system for it. It's available to every person who's literate. What more can you ask for? Books are terrific, and I don't think they'll disappear in the near future or in the far future either.

Hypertext is not an adequate substitute for a book. Books have their own hypertext: an index, contents, a footnote, a cross-reference. When hypertext is essential, it's there. When I dug a sewer in my backyard, I needed to know the correct slope for a sewer. I decided to go online and search the Web. I started the browser running, but couldn't find the answer to this obvious question. I went to my public library, got a copy of the Uniform Plumbing Code, the UPC, looked it up, and there it was, a damned useful piece of information. What did I find online? I found thousands of obsolete programs but I couldn't find anything about plumbing.

It costs less than a thousand dollars to make a Web page and put your message up. Therefore you find lots of commercial messages online, but damn little commerce happening, not just because there's no trustworthy way to exchange money, but because of the marketing triangle. We know, intuitively, that you can get anything either cheap, fast, or good, but you can't get all three at the same time. You can get cheap fast food, but it's not going to be good. You can get good fast food, but it's not going to be cheap. You can get cheap good food, but it won't be fast, because you'll be cooking it up on your stove. This applies to information as well. Those who expect to make gobs of money off the Web and the Internet will have a curious awakening. It won't be rude, because they won't have invested that much, but it will be a curious awakening when they realize the dirty secret of the Internet: people online are phenomenally stingy. They'll spend lots and lots of money on hardware, but they'll avoid spending seventy-five cents on a long distance phone call to another county to log in. They're looking for the cheapest possible way to get things. When online services offer information that people need to pay for, they suddenly discover that not many people want it any longer. They are unwilling to pay even token amounts.

It will be a long while before there is a lot of online commerce. One thing the Internet is missing are salespeople. When you're online, you see catalogs of great stuff. Catalog sales pale in comparison to genuine retail sales. Why? Because there's a trust between the salesperson and the customer. The customer can go back to the salesperson and complain if what was purchased doesn't work. In doing business online, how do I know that a company is going to exist tomorrow, or next week, or next year? In dealing face-to-face, there's a sense of trust, of camaraderie, a realization that the salesperson works for the customer as well as the business. It's an idea as old as commerce. Yet somehow in computing we think that we can avoid salespeople by selling online. I expect that in the next five or six years we'll realize that the great predictions of online malls and Internet commercial bonanzas evaporated into thin air.

I am more at home with plumbers and carpenters than with the gurus of the digital culture. I have the feeling that the world of tomorrow will not be that of the information age. Most of the jobs that we see around us today‹bartender, waiter, senator, movie actor, salesperson‹do not require computers, probably don't even require faxes, and oftentimes don't require telephones. I suspect that twenty, forty, one hundred years from now, those jobs will still exist, and we'll still need competent, capable people to work them.



THE CITIZEN (Howard Rheingold):
Who doesn't like Cliff? He's off-the-wall and charming and nuts. I completely disagree with his brand of Luddism. We need criticism that can discriminate the good from the bad points of new technologies, not a meat-ax approach.

THE IDEALIST (Denise Caruso):
Cliff Stoll reminds me of Tigger, the character in Winnie the Pooh that has the spring in his tail. I have never seen anyone except a two-year-old with that much energy, intellectually and physically. Or, I might add, as prone to sailing off in different directions.

THE STATESMAN (Steve Case): Cliff Stoll is hyperkinetic. It's unclear to me how genuine his current passion is about the negative aspects of this medium. He has some serious concerns about it, but he has, I'm sure deliberately, overstated the case so dramatically that it now lacks some credibility.

THE DEFENDER (Mike Godwin):
A lot of people think Cliff is a curmedgeon or a crank. What he really is, I think, is a holy fool‹the guy who sees that the emperor has no clothes and refuses to shut up about it. Such people can be uncomfortable to be around‹they specialize in shaking the rest of us up‹but Cliff's passions for both knowledge and wisdom, his genuine commitment to leaving the world a better place than he found it, and his irreducible humanity and idealism make me very proud to number him among my closest friends. I love the guy.

THE PATTERN-RECOGNIZER (Esther Dyson):
Cliff Stoll is an idealist because he wants everybody to be perfect and he wants everything to be nice.

THE SCRIBE (John Markoff): Stoll is a character, an extremely clever itinerant astronomer, who led me astray eight years ago and started himself on this weird magical mystery tour, which doesn't seem to have ended yet.

THE PUBLISHER (Jane Metcalfe): I'm puzzled by Cliff Stoll, and Silicon Snake Oil. Part of me wonders if it isn't his loss of enthusiasm for the sort of labyrinthine development of the Internet that he chronicled so well in his previous book. As these things become business they somehow become less interesting.


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Excerpted from Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite by John Brockman (HardWired Books, 1996) . Copyright © 1996 by John Brockman. All rights reserved.