Masthead CMC Magazine September 1, 1995 / Page 7


A Snake, Some Oil

by Rory McGreal (

Book Information:
Silicon Snake Oil
by Clifford Stoll
New York: Doubleday
$29.95 cloth

Silicon Snake Oil could represent a first attempt to compile a database on every negative aspect that could possibly be attributed to cyberspace. In one long whine, Stoll lists off everything that can and does go wrong with computers and the online world. When I studied in Moscow in the 1970s, I experienced something similar when watching Soviet TV or reading their papers. Everything they reported on the West was true, but it was all negative. Stoll's book is like that. First you set up a straw dog and then you attack it.

Who are these cyber utopians that Stoll must counter attack? Does anyone believe that the Net is a panacea? Or, that the introduction of anything new, whether it be ideas, technology or procedures, will not have both negative and positive aspects? Every positively oriented book that I have read also includes warnings about the massive changes that are in store for societies. Do cyber utopians exist at all?

Conversely, where is this real world that Stoll uses to contrast with the Net? -- Full of wonderful real people relating to their families, reading novels and engaging in enlightened conversations while gardening. He even ruminates about the knowledgeable and helpful computer store salesperson. I am afraid that my real world also includes many people who do not have such wonderful relationships. I have also found that I get far better and more objective advice off the Net than from sales people in computer stores. Not only do they try to sell what I do not want, but quite often they lack the knowledge to help me.

Stoll not only gripes about the glitz on the Net, but then he continues to groan about the limitations of ASCII text. He can whine in both directions at the same time. He even prefers hand-written resumes to word-processed productions. Does he really believe that before word- processors, people were creating artistic manuscripts? He has "never seen a memorable computer-generated chart," but did he regularly see works of art when people were scribbling on overheads transparencies and blackboards?

Dangerously, he claims that he does not want a computer adept doctor. He would prefer someone with compassion. Hey, Clifford, how about a compassionate computer-adept doctor? The computer user as an unfeeling nerd is a Luddite stereotype. You may have grown up with many of them and are still surrounded by that milieu, but my experience is that since leaving university, the computer people I have had the pleasure of working with are very personable and humane. Personally, I would be worried if my doctor did not know how to use the computer technology of her field. I also feel much better knowing that she is accessing the latest research over the Net.

His ignorance of the education environment shows when he discusses learning using the Net. He "senses little love for this technology" from kids. Well, maybe Clifford should leave his garden and meaningful relationships for a short while and visit the real world. Millions of kids are having a ball with the technology and learning at the same time. He claims that "interactive videos ... are no substitute for a fired-up teacher who's there in person." This may be true, but how about substituting for a boring lecturer who has never been fired up. I know that California is different, but I suspect that all of Clifford's teachers were not "fired-up". How about comparing a distance class of twenty students (who have a fired-up teacher on line and computer access) to a traditional class of 1500 in a lecture theater with no windows and an old bore who reads from notes created 20 years ago?

Stoll even claims that computers are not necessary for most college studies. There is an element here of the attitude: I learned the hard way. They can learn the hard way. When more than 50% of jobs now require some computer skills, and when more and more businesses are getting online, I find this claim to be elitist. Students graduating without some basic computer skills are unqualified for the real world. Computers and telecommunications are integral to the real world we live in.

And that is what Stoll is really missing in his book: an understanding that the real world now includes online universes and computer games. But when he cannot see the humor in books with titles like DOS for Dummies, then goes on to extol the advantages of manual typewriters over word processors, I feel that he does protest too much and at some point becomes farcical. Either that or he saw a market for a negative book and he went for it, taking advantage of the consumerism that he uses his book to condemn.

Still, the book is worth reading because there is all too much hype out there about the Information Superhighway. Caution is needed as well as a sense of perspective. The book however could have been written with more obvious tongue-in-cheek as I suspect it was when the author was digging up some of these examples. [CMC TOC]

Rory McGreal is Executive Director of TeleEducation New Brunswick, a province-wide distance education and training network in New Brunswick, Canada.

Copyright © 1995 by Rory McGreal. All Rights Reserved.

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