Word from a nerd: beware the Net

A computer wiz tells Joseph Gallivan it's time to pull the plug on the wired world
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Indy Lifestyle Online
"You see!" shrieks Clifford Stoll, waving his arms so that his cocoa spills. "We've created a world where otherwise creative and intelligent people who want to learn about computers have to buy books called Windows for Idiots and DOS for Dummies, while the boring people who are good at following instructions - the computer nerds and the geeks - are called "wizards" and "gurus" and get all the jobs. I should know, I'm one of them!"

Clifford Stoll is an unlikely person to want to pull the plug on the wired world. In a field where "newbies" prostrate themselves before veterans of just a couple of years, Stoll is one of the originals. In the Seventies he built his first computer - 4k, no hard drive - and hooked it up to the Arpanet, the skeletal precursor to the Internet. He's been a "sysop" - in charge of an online bulletin board. In 1989 he wrote The Cuckoo's Egg, a thrilling account of his pursuit through cyberspace of a German hacker who was selling US military data to the KGB. He has four Macs and a PC, and six different online accounts. Very Northern California.

And yet his new book, Silicon Snake Oil, published here on Friday, documents an apostasy. In short, he predicts the Internet will not live up to the hype. He does not believe computers can teach us much, or solve the real problems in life. His 13 peripatetic chapters go right against the grain of thought of the "liberation technologists."

"I thought we had abandoned all this utopian stuff in the Seventies," he says. "The jet packs, the monorails, the Age of Leisure ... now it's all back, with IBM and the phone companies telling us how we'll be downloading everything we need from home. The Internet is being vastly oversold. Fifty years ago, when the US interstate highway system was launched, how many people thought ahead and said, 'Yes, it sounds good, but the downside will be the suburbanisation of our cities, where we'll drive an hour to work and won't know our neighbours, land will be gobbled up, pollution will rise, and we'll be dependent on foreign oil'? All I'm saying is someone should ask some obvious questions," he says. "And why should it be left to a second rate astronomer like me?"

Stoll looks like Frank Zappa and does the batty scientist, but his eccentricity is genuine. As he makes a point about the Net's inhumanity and shallowness, he leans forward, his brown eyes as damp as a puppy's: "Ask a stupid question online and whoa! You get slam dunked! I don't want to be a part of a community where people routinely use four-letter words."

Stoll's electronic mailbox has been in flames since the book came out - the commonest insult being "Luddite!" - but his "freeform meditation", as he calls Silicon Snake Oil, while no thriller, is powerful because it dredges up what is often repressed in the hectic chatter about the "information superhighway". Eventually, he gets round to each aspect of online life and tells you why it is overrated. Electronic mail, for instance, is often slow, goes missing or, worst of all, remains unanswered. He reckons half his e-mail to colleagues alone gets no reply. "Strangers once wrote me letters and gave me a week to reply. Now they ping me back after a couple of days. The Net fosters impatience."

The quality of writing on the Net? "Most posts to Usenet newsgroups are hasty and ill thought out. People say 'Isn't it great that everyone's reading and writing again?', but I don't see any improvement in the literacy of college students. When it comes to political discourse, everything is polarised and disputes often end in flame wars."

Stoll examines every aspect of computing. Even word-processing comes under fire. Naturally, you wonder what tools he used to write the book. The last chapter reveals that he experimented with three - a pen, an old Sears typewriter, and MS Word. He thinks the penned sections read best.

Stoll is a teacher and is at his best when he discusses education. "There are three groups all pushing the Internet at the moment. The techno-journalists, who use it as a great source of stories; the computer companies, of course, who want you to buy more stuff; and the people in government departments, such as education, who want to seen to be cutting-edge. But in schools and libraries, money for books is now going into computers that kids really don't need. Beyond the snazzy gadgets and sounds, most educational programmes are no better than a $2 pack of flashcards. A good librarian is worth far more than an online database, but library administrators will now cut journal acquisition and evening opening hours so they can buy bad CD-roms."

As a research tool, the Internet falls well short. "I've never seen anything so vapid, so soulless, and with such useless information as the World Wide Web," he says. "I've had students who will settle for what they find on the Internet, rather than spend an afternoon in a real library."

Sitting in front of a computer for hours just is not good for you, he says. "You don't need a keyboard to bake bread, play touch football, quilt a piece build a stone wall, recite a poem or say a prayer." This is Stoll's call to computer nerds, and the new wave of wannabes, to get a life.

'Silicon Snake Oil' is published by Macmillan on Friday, price pounds 9.99.