Copyright John Gerstner. All Rights Reserved.

Cliff Stoll: Cyber-Skeptic (The Civilization of Cyberspace #3)

The Internet is like drinking from a firehose. You get plenty wet, but still walk away thirsty.

“I’m not afraid of technology. I love the technology, but I distrust the claims made for it.  It’s like drinking from a firehose. You get plenty wet, but still walk away thirsty.”

This interview by John Gerstner is the third in The Civilization of Cyberspace series.  It was first published in the June-July issue of Communication World Magazine.

“One of the dirty little secrets of the Internet is that users are remarkably cheap. Even if you could bill them, users are not willing to pay a nickel.” ‘Click.’

Feather-weight Cliff Stoll, in the ring with heavy-weight champion Mike “Internet” Tyson. Stoll, weaving and bobbing . . . scrawny and long-haired … stuns the crowd as he lands a series of sharp blows to the head.

“Computers dull the skills we use in everyday life.”

“The Internet, that great digital dumpster, confers not power, not prosperity, not perspicacity.”

“Why are drug addicts and computer aficionados both called users?” “Click.”

Cliff Stoll, astride his faithful donkey . . . steadfastly flailing at the flotilla of Internet windmills that dot the high Spanish plain of LaMancha. Gleaming white in the moonlight, he can make out their perfectly lettered nameplates: “Enlightenment” “Prosperity” “Utopia” and he scoffs: “There is a technocratic belief that computers and networks will make a better society. That access to information, better communication and electronic programs can cure social problems. I simply don’t believe it.” “Click.”

Cliff Stoll single-handedly gripping the tether of a gargantuan Internet dirigible. It is crammed with noisy Internauts, thrilled to be bound for the promised Cyberland. Stoll grips the rope with all of his might, but the incredible blast of hot media air finally wrests it free. As the huge craft rises overhead, he shouts one last warning, which no one onboard seems to hear:

“Much of what happens over the networks is a metaphor – we chat without speaking, smile without grinning, and hug without touching. How sad to dwell in a metaphor without living the experience.”

So at a time when you can’t pick up a newspaper or watch a television commercial without confronting the word Internet – and big Internet fish are eating the little ones – Cliff Stoll is the long-haired hippie standing beside the Great I-Way waving a yellow caution flag and holding up a hand-scrawled sign that reads: “www.enough.already.”

Maybe it’s high time. Stoll’s version of where the Information Superhighway is taking us, and at what cost, is entertainingly packaged in his 1995 book “Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway.” It is a conversational and witty meditation on what Stoll believes are powerful and dangerous Internet myths … such as that electronic data exchange is faster, more reliable and less expensive than communication by phone, fax or even the postal service.

And that computerizing our schools and libraries will improve education. And that connecting to the Internet is a wise use of your time. “Every minute spent on the Internet is one minute you didn’t spend with your loved ones,” he says. “While you’re connecting to the stranger on the other side of the globe, you’re not teaching your child how to draw.”

Stoll’s attack on cyber-life would be easier to dismiss if he were simply another neo-Luddite smashing computers out of ignorance or fear. But Stoll is more reformed technogeek than technophobe. A planetary astronomer by training, he cobbled together his first computer in 1976 and logged onto the Arpanet, the ancestor of the Internet, soon after to share research with colleagues.

Even today – on the World Wide Web he loves to loathe – he has a home page (http://www.OCF.Berkeley.EDU/^stoll/) where he advertises his books and apologizes for not answering all his E-mail. In 1989, Stoll helped make hyperspace hip with his best-seller, “The Cuckoo’s Egg.” It is a revenge-of-the-nerd true tale of how he used programming wizardry to track down a gang of German hackers that were stealing U.S. security information and selling it to the KGB. The crooks had cracked the computer system he managed at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., and it took Stoll a year to catch them.

Stoll still lives (without a car or television set) in Berkeley, which may partially explain his sunny ’60s sentimentalism. For all of us who’ve ever cussed a computer when it crashed for no good reason, or simply felt guilty about spending so much time online for so little, Stoll’s views strike a vibrant chord. Even though you can’t help feeling Stoll’s cynicism is tongue-in-cheek at times – and there’s a sinking feeling that we humans are probably powerless before the onslaught of technology anyway – Stoll’s download of doubt rings loud and refreshing: Enter the Internet with caution, and keep a sharp eye on your rearview mirror.

GERSTNER: What tipped you over the edge . . . you didn’t start out being anti-computers, did you?

STOLL: Quite the opposite, I have always been very intrigued by computers. I love technology. I love computers. I own six of them. I’ve been using computers for 35 years. I’m on the Internet daily. I’ve been online for more than two decades. I simply began to take note of the private doubts my fellow computer jocks were voicing in the cafeteria and hallways. Things like how frustrating, time-consuming and expensive it is to keep hardware and software current and working. Things like how the Internet promises so much, yet delivers so little.

GERSTNER: What kind of reaction did “Silicon Snake Oil” stir up in Silicon Valley?

STOLL: To my astonishment, the commentary from the computer field has been small; the commentary from the wider field of readers has been considerable. I’ve gotten a lot of reaction from teachers, librarians, and those who are critical of the runaway growth of the Internet. They agree the Internet is being grossly oversold. And that it’s high time to ask why.

GERSTNER: How have the media treated you?

STOLL: One article called me a techno-traitor, a traitor to technologists. Another said I’m just in it for the money, trying to publish the first anti-Internet book. Neither of these is correct. I’m simply trying to keep the field honest. We need skepticism. The resistance to criticism reminds me of the arrogance of nuclear engineers in the 1960s when they said, “Trust us, we know what’s good for you. We will give you low-cost, high-quality electricity.”

GERSTNER: You’re not saying there are dangers to the Internet equal to the dangers of nuclear energy?

STOLL: Oh no … I’d say it’s much closer to the promises and reality of a highway system in the 1970s. The argument then was that high-speed roads would be good for the country, good for the cities, good for farmers, good for defense. They will bring us closer to one another. All of these promises are similar to promises of the Internet. But no one asked the obvious question: Might this highway system be bad for the country? Might it create a civilization where people waste hours everyday commuting because they have moved to the suburbs? Might the highway system make the U.S. dependent on foreign oil? Similar grand promises were also made for television in the 1940s. They said it will inform and entertain us; it will make us a closer nation. It will be good for the family by providing a place for all of us to gather in the evening. These promises are also surprisingly similar to the promises made for the Internet. The reality is that television has helped devastate society. But no one asked the obvious question: Do we want or need television?

GERSTNER: Do we have the choice of accepting or rejecting a new technology? Doesn’t it just get thrown into our laps, and we don’t find out its ills until much later, when it may be too late?

STOLL: This much is certain: Unless we debate these questions in public, we move blindly. We listen to some cyberguru who says this is the way the future is, close your eyes and trust me. I don’t believe in gurus. I believe in skepticism, in discussion, in public debate. It’s our responsibility as citizens, as technologists, to debate where this stuff is likely to go and to ask difficult questions. The easy questions are things like, “How will we deliver mega bandwidths into people’s homes?” That’s a technical question. The tough question is, “For what purpose will this be used? Will this actually help people’s lives or will it be used for interactive Nintendo games? Will 500 channels of television give people a better lifestyle or might it be better to spend this money on books for libraries? Do people genuinely need and desire T-1 bandwidth Internet or might it be more important to spend that money on forests? On preserving parks? “Is our vision of the future that of virtual communities or friendly neighborhoods where people know their neighbors and work together?” To me those are important questions. Maybe it’s more important for me to spend time with my aging parents than to spend time prowling around the World Wide Web. Accessing 100 home pages is 60 minutes that I could be spending teaching my daughter how to draw.

GERSTNER: What are your biggest concerns about our move toward cyberspace?

STOLL: That the Internet is a terrifically effective way to waste time that might otherwise be difficult to waste. I spend almost as much time figuring out what’s wrong with my computer as I do actually using it. Networked software, especially, requires frequent updates and maintenance, which gets in the way of doing routine work. Why are workers no more productive now than 15 years ago? Might it be that the time you save with a computer is exactly taken up by the time needed to maintain and use the computer? Could it be that E-mail is offset exactly by the time wasted by the time spent to make the damn stuff work? I’m also very concerned that the Internet is promoted as a great educational tool when in fact it is a way of avoiding learning about logic. That the Internet is promoted as a way to meet people, to bring us closer together, when in fact it isolates us from one another. It puts me in contact with distant strangers while taking me away from my neighbors, my friends, my family. This is as obvious to you as it is to me. I have spent an hour online without realizing that all of the people who are important to me were gone.

GERSTNER: But I’m sure you agree there is some value to electronic communication. We’re able to do this interview over the phone, for instance . . .

STOLL: This interview would be much better and far more memorable for us both if you came over to my house and had coffee. By talking over the phone, it’s less personal, less memorable, less fun. If we were to conduct this interview over the Internet, it would be even more boring.

GERSTNER: It depends on how fast a typist you are, to some degree.

STOLL: Yes. One effect of the Internet is to undermine quality journalism and substitute shallow reporting. It’s much easier for a reporter to just fire up the Internet and search on a keyword than to call someone up on the phone or dig for substantive information in the library.

GERSTNER: What do you make of the growing number of online publications?

STOLL: You keep hearing people say whoever can supply content will make money on the Internet. I no longer believe it. One of the more pernicious myths is that the Internet will prompt a literary revival. The computer is not something that promotes reading for more than a small amount of text. Second, you can’t bill people for stuff on the Internet. One of the dirty little secrets of the Internet is that users are remarkably cheap. Even if you could bill them, users are not willing to pay a nickel. Result? It’s a terrific way for unpublished science fiction authors to get their works out, but is it a good way for a magazine to publish serious editorial content? Heck no! And if the advertisers don’t get anything out of it, the whole thing goes away.

GERSTNER: But many people are making money on the Internet, right?

STOLL: There is no question that some people are making a small amount of money from the Internet, such as Internet service providers. But Internet content providers are not. The Internet is based on people trying to get something for nothing, and I don’t think you can. It violates the first law of economics . . . mainly, there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.

GERSTNER: What’s your assessment of the quality of information on the Internet?

STOLL: If you like television, you will love the World Wide Web. Instead of having 200 or 500 channels, the World Wide Web provides 100 million channels. The Web alongside television makes people think they are getting information when in fact they are getting low-quality data. And there is a wide gulf between information and knowledge. Knowledge means understanding; you can’t download understanding from an FTP site. The World Wide Web may provide lots of answers, many of them wrong. One of the lies of the Internet is that it is an information superhighway and that we need lots more information. But I have never met anyone standing on a street corner, sign in hand, saying we need more information. Just the opposite, many of us, especially those of us working in technical fields, say, “I’ve got all the information I need. Give me less, but give me higher quality information.” And that’s what’s missing from the Internet, quality. When it doesn’t cost anything to post the stuff, people naturally post anything they wish. As a result, when I need quality information, I turn to that which is published on paper for the obvious reason that it costs money to publish on paper. Because of that, there is a built-in filter. They are called editors. Because it costs money, they will only allow that which has quality content. So when I want quality, I look on a piece of paper. I look at that which has been edited. And that’s what is grossly and desperately missing from the World Wide Web: editors, critics, reviewers, reporters.

GERSTNER: You’re really addressing the audience of this interview now. There is a real ferment in communicator ranks about what to do with the new technology. Are we supposed to abandon print and jump to the online world, and if so, how do we do it with quality?

STOLL: The answer to me is self-evident. It’s economic. You get what you pay for. When it’s cheap or free to publish something on the World Wide Web, you will naturally publish that which costs the least, has the least and has the least economic value. If you have a catalog or parts list, you put it online. When you have something you want people to study and think hard about, you’ll put it on paper. Quality writing takes time. Somebody who puts time and money and effort into it . . . are they going to give it away for free? Maybe, but I doubt it.

GERSTNER: Unfortunately I think companies are finding that it’s not exactly cheap to put words on the Internet either.

STOLL: They are pricey, but that will go down. They’ll nosedive real soon. Around here there are college students putting businesses online for U.S. $2,000. Businesses paying thousands of dollars to have big web sites are wasting their money. “Silicon Snake Oil” very passionately argues for living in rite real world rather than the virtual world. It’s strange that this distinction would even need to be brought up, but it does seem valid to remind people that when you are on the Internet, you have left the real world. And you are escaping into nowhere. I don’t want to stick my head into some kind of an ostrich hole. I want to deal with real people, real experience. I want to taste and feel and see and hear and touch what is around me. I want real human interrelationships. When I read all these newspaper reports of this coming virtual reality world, I roll my eyes and say, this is bogus. Computers teach us to withdraw, to retreat into the warm comfort of their false reality. No computer can teach what a walk through a pine forest is like. Sensation has no substitute.

STOLL: I am a long-time user, but I am no longer a heavy user. I might be online for a few minutes a day. I am not saying the Internet is worthless. I’m saying we need to be skeptical of the claims made for the Internet. When people say the Internet is useful, nail them down. Say “useful for what?” When people say it is essential, say “essential for what?” I gave a talk in Silicon Valley and this guy came up and he said, “I find the Internet to be infinitely valuable.” I said, “I’m an astronomer . . . you don’t use the word infinite around me, guy.” And he said, “Nope, it’s infinitely valuable to me,” When I asked, “what for?” he said, “I’m a bicyclist and I keep up to date with the French Tour de France by reading postings on the Internet.” I thought he was going to tell me he discovered the cure for his sister’s cancer on the Internet. No, his definition of infinite value was that he could keep up to date with a bicycle race. I told him if he really wanted infinite value, he should go to France and watch the race in person. Better yet, instead of spending time with your hands on the keyboard, spend your time with your hands on the handlebars . . . go bicycling. You’ll learn a lot more about bicycling, and you’ll be a better athlete for it. Time that you spend on the Internet is time that you are not spending bicycling, feeding your fish, chatting with your neighbors, talking to your spouse or working on your relationships.

GERSTNER: Another point you make clearly in your book is that the torrent of information that flows through the Web makes us terrifically overloaded, and even splinters our thinking. Do you think we are actually devaluing words here?

STOLL: The medium in which we communicate changes how we organize our thoughts. We program computers, but the computers also program us. I rarely sit back and contemplate what’s on my screen. It’s too immediate, too demanding, and the next file is pressing. It’s like drinking from a firehose. You get plenty wet, but still walk away thirsty. Every day, well over a hundred megabytes of postings flow by – far too much to even skim, let alone read. I get glassy eyed from reading innumerable postings that have nothing to say – a vast echo canyon, endlessly repeating calls from people who want to hear their own voices. The ability to read and reflect upon a long document is being lost because people expect multimedia, ritzy, multicolored, icon-driven pretty pictures. We are losing the ability to read, reflect and analytically report on what one sees. Quite the opposite, television coupled with multimedia gives us a sense that all you have to do to learn about something is to see a fancy CD-ROM complete with video clips and soundtrack. Well, I don’t believe it. Learning requires much more than seeing something. Learning requires homework, discipline, commitment, responsibility. Learning requires work. It requires a good teacher. Those things are antithetical to multimedia.

GERSTNER: I know many term papers today are being written by cutting and pasting off the Internet.

STOLL: Sure . . . open up a lousy encyclopedia like Encarta, copy and paste a section onto my term paper. Result . . . poor writing, or worse . . . believing the myth that all one needs to do to write is to copy from someone else’s work and paste it into yours. We need not think analytically; we’ll find somebody else who has done a similar paper and paste it into ours.

GERSTNER: What else do you think the Internet is hurting more than helping?

STOLL: I look around the San Francisco Bay area, and essentially every school district and high school teaches some form of computing. As a result, I can hire a computer programmer for $30 or $40 an hour, sometimes $50. None of the schools around here teach plumbing. As a result, when I hire a plumber, Roto Rooter charges $120 an hour. Now I can get along quite well without a computer for a week or a month, but when my toilet backs up, I’m desperate. Yet nobody knows what to do because we are losing the skills that we no longer value.

GERSTNER: You’re also concerned about the problems of archiving information electronically. Why?

STOLL: Because electronic media aren’t archival. The physical medium isn’t the problem; it’s the reading mechanism. Think of the extinct formats: 78-rpm records, 2-inch quad-scan videotape, phonograph cylinders, paper tape, 80-column punch cards, 100-column punch cards, 7-track digital tape, reel-to-reel audio tape, 8-track tapes, 8-millimeter movies. And today: 45- and 33-rpm vinyl records; 5 1/4 inch floppy disks; Betamax tapes. To which do you entrust your cultural heritage – Mead Data Central or 10,000 libraries across the continent?

GERSTNER: Do you have a vision of how all of this may wind up in the next five years or so?

STOLL: No, I don’t. I’m an astrophysicist, I don’t predict the future. One of the things I find offensive about computer people is their willingness to try and predict the future. With no training in sociology or humanities, they feel they can go out and say what our society will look like in five or 10 years. Instead of predicting the future, I observe the present.

GERSTNER: How would you describe yourself if you had to pin a label on? A Luddite?

STOLL: Oh no, no, no, could a Luddite fix computers? Would a Luddite typically wire his own printed circuit boards? Would a Luddite take apart a disk drive on a Sunday evening? No.

GERSTNER: How about curmudgeon?

STOLL: Nor am I a curmudgeon. I am not cynical. I feel it is important to be skeptical, but not cynical. I have hope for the future. I look forward with optimism, but I am cynical of claims made for the future. I’m an astronomer and a physicist and as such I am paid to be skeptical.

GERSTNER: And you wind up being ambivalent about the Internet?

STOLL: Yes, deeply ambivalent. I’m not afraid of technology. I love the technology, but I distrust the claims made for it.

GERSTNER: Does your long experience with the Internet make your criticism of it more credible?

STOLL: I’m not sure about that. Suppose an English professor who never used the Internet said the exact same thing I did based upon his analysis of sociology and television. Would that make his analysis invalid? People think that because I am a technician I should understand the social impact. That’s a little bit like asking the cameraman at a TV station how television would change our society. The right person to ask about television would be a Latin scholar. In that sense, you’re asking the wrong guy. I’m the TV repairman.

GERSTNER: Are you amazed how fast the Internet has grown just in the last year without any real discussion about the effects of this technology?

STOLL: No, the people who are building computers want to sell them. The people who are making multimedia yearbooks want to say they’re revolutionizing the world. People who want to talk about cyberspace want to say they’re building a whole nation. Well, I don’t believe it.


Copyright John Gerstner – CEO, Communitelligence

  • Client
    IABC Communication World Magazine
  • URL
  • Date
    May 11, 1995