Second Thoughts on Info Highway

Article excerpt

JUST IN CASE everyone is getting too carried away with the apparent wonders of the computer age, Clifford Stoll is here with a warning in his new book, "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" (Doubleday; $22). There may be roadblocks up ahead.

Stoll is an astronomer, a computer security expert and the author of "The Cuckoo's Egg," a book about how he tracked and eventually caught a German spy ring operating over the Internet. On the possible pitfalls of the computer age, he makes a good deal of sense. Anyone who has spent time listening to music over the phone while waiting for the next available technician will recognize what he's talking about.

As Stoll tells it, his misgivings began on a vacation, when he found himself on a Connecticut farm, "bathed in the cold glow of my cathode-ray tube, answering E-mail." A sense of disorientation set in, a disconnection from the physical world. He felt virtually unreal.

So he begins his book by deploring the lack of physical sensation in cyberspace. The game of Adventure is no substitute for actual spelunking, he reminds us. People won't shop by computer because they prefer real money and flesh-and-blood salespeople. Children need human teachers, not video screens. E-mail's all right when you've just got something to say, but E-mail's not right when you're trying to get people's attention; the U.S. Postal System is more reliable, he insists, and far more forgiving of mistaken addresses.

Besides, real letters have stamps on them, and unique handwriting, which has declined because of computers, like everyone's prose style despite the belief that computers would inspire better writing. And a compact disk is no substitute for a book.

Goaded by this enmity toward the abstractness of computing, Stoll proceeds to a general attack on hardware, software and their various interfaces. Why do we have to become computer literate, he asks, when more complex machines like cars and televisions don't require special forms of literacy? Even the keyboard's design is perverse, he argues, citing the historical fact that the QWERTY layout intentionally placed "the most-used characters as far apart as possible" to slow typists down and prevent primitive rollers from becoming jammed.

Electronic storage media keep becoming obsolete, unlike good old books. In libraries, Stoll insists, on-line catalogs don't convey nearly as much information as the card-file system. In the electronic library of the future, you won't be able to browse through the stacks, although, he adds, given the immensity of the task, the prospect of digitizing all books is probably beyond realization. …