Copyright 1995 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
May 10, 1995, Wednesday, Final Edition
SECTION: STYLE; Pg. C01
LENGTH: 1960 words
HEADLINE: THE WIRED COMPUTER GUY; Zooks! Cliff Stoll's Dire Warnings About the Internet Have Struck a Nerve
BYLINE: John Schwartz, Washington Post Staff Writer
It was a Paul on the Damascus Road conversion, Internet style.
Clifford Stoll, one of America's most renowned computer fanatics, had had enough.
He was vacationing on a Connecticut farm with friends. The others were chatting, stargazing and enjoying bites of buttered popcorn. Meanwhile, "I'm bathed in the cold glow of my cathode-ray tube, answering e-mail." Instead of bantering with his friends, he's reading banter on-line, corresponding with a lot of people he doesn't really know.
"I see my reflection in the screen and a chill runs down my spine. Even on vacation, I can't escape the computer networks.
"I take a deep breath and pull the plug."
So begins "Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway," Stoll's second book, which has created a stir and landed on some bestseller lists because it says that the Internet is -- zooks! -- overhyped by fast-buck businessmen and "technoburbling" journalists.
Few people have more impressive credentials to trash the Internet than Stoll: The astronomer turned computer security expert caught German hackers searching for U.S. military secrets to sell to the Soviets; he tracked them across the global network of computer networks and wrote it all up in a surprise 1989 bestseller, "The Cuckoo's Egg." The book was such a hit that PBS turned it into a "Nova" episode; Stoll played himself.
In this world, he's about as much of an old-timer as one gets, having spent more than 15 years with the Internet. They grew up together. But recent rhapsodizing about the digital future leaves him cold: "I hear so much positive about the Internet, I think it's time for someone to raise a flag."
Stoll's moment of truth probably didn't happen the way he recalls, though.
It doesn't seem like him because the passage does not mention any whooping or jumping. Whooping and jumping are the essence of all-encompassing, goofballish CliffStollery. When he gets going, the wiry 44-year-old Stoll seems constantly to be in motion, his hands fling-gesturing, his frizzy penumbra of hair following the rhythm of his gimbaling head, his whole body leaping up and down to put a few hundred exclamation marks at the end of a sentence, a personal gestalt that screams RITALIN! GIVE HIM RITALIN!
His manner impresses the blazes out of small children, who recognize him as one of their own. He says stuff like "zooks!" and "hot ziggity!" He ends phone messages with "Smiles to ya!" He excitedly shows off toys he's picked up in science museums; words and explanations excitedly gush out of him as if he's some kind of knowledge blender and somebody left the top off.
Stoll visits the offices of The Washington Post. He doesn't just sit in a reporter's chair -- he fiddles and futzes with its ergonomic controls, zipping it up and down like a barber's chair and bouncing on its cushioned seat. Meeting one science reporter, he excitedly expresses his admiration for her work. She flashes Stoll a classic fear smile and edges back to her day's story. Stoll excuses himself and heads off to the bathroom, and another reporter who has been quietly taking in the scene turns, shoots a look over the top of his glasses and asks, deadpan:
". . . Computer guy?"
Cliff Stoll, Radar Ranger
While Stoll has won the hearts of Luddites everywhere with "Silicon Snake Oil," he's no literary Unabomber plotting darkly against the "techno-nerds." He doesn't hate technology, or even the Internet. He didn't even actually "pull the plug" back there on that farmland vacation: You can still reach him via e-mail, though he prefers that you write or phone.
That's the big Stollian secret: This quintessential Bay Area techno-hippie still loves technology, as long as it adds to life instead of detracting from it.
A while back he got angry at the drivers speeding through his neighborhood and decided he'd figure out just how fast they were going. He pulled down some books and built himself a radar gun -- like the ones the cops use, but home-brewed largely out of spare parts and coffee cans. He then jacked the ungainly device into his computer and threw the data into a spreadsheet so he could measure the speed of every car passing in front of his house and chart the results -- bell curves of velocity with means and modes calculated out into decimal heaven. He gave the resulting evidence to other folks in the neighborhood, who in turn put pressure on the cash-strapped City Council for a little relief. "It turns out we got our speed bumps and I met my neighbors!"
Nerd citizen; nerd hero.
Technology, however, can't fix many of the problems it's being touted as a panacea for, he's concluded. The shared techno-visions of Vice President Gore and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of an enhanced democratic process thanks to the wiring of America?
The promise of better education and tighter communities ushered in by high-tech is, he states flatly over coffee, "a baldfaced lie -- it's bogus!" The key to education, he contends, is totally jazzed teachers, not expensive new edu-toys; he underscores the point by recalling the filmstrips he was forced to watch in junior high school.
He's not simply anti-; call Cliff Stoll an ambi, working through a self-described "perplexed ambivalence." He says, "I have many different feelings, ranging from 'I love this Net!' to 'I hate this Net!' " Stoll has taken his emotional gumbo and put it to paper, a 234-page therapy session that he has gotten Doubleday -- and his readers -- to pay for. This is indeed a great country.
His conclusion, boiled down to a sound bite: "Real life and authentic experience mean much more than anything the modem can deliver."
"I love technology. I love computers. It's the cult of computing that bothers me; it's the alienation of it."
Alienation. The book, and the quest, are not so much about the Internet as about Stoll himself. He's not asking what's wrong with technology -- he's asking what's wrong with us, that we would look to silicon and plastic for our answers. Stoll is wondering aloud about the best ways for us to connect with one another. Such connections are rare enough in person; the computer adds a layer of interference that we can do without, he's come to feel.
"I suspect these interactions are mostly shallow and ephemeral," he writes. "Computer games develop skills without fostering friendships. Multimedia extravaganzas impress but rarely satisfy. There's no there there," the Oakland resident writes.
Having seen himself drain away the days of his life through a screen, he now stands at the edge of the precipice, waving the rest of us away. "It's people talking, not doing." Don't give yourself over completely to the virtual world. Dig in a garden; bake brownies. (He helpfully supplies a recipe in the book.) Make your own radar detector, even. That, too, is living: At its best, Radio Shack can be another garden to get your fingernails dirty in. Get a life, he pleads.
Is this a prescription or a confession? Stoll is a guy who, while warm and engaging, at times seems to be merely visiting our planet. In the middle of "Cuckoo's Egg," he digresses to tell about the time he needed to dry off his one pair of shoes before dinner and so popped them into his roommate's new microwave oven and turned it on. Then the phone rings. It's his then-girlfriend (now ex-wife; he has since remarried and has a baby daughter).
"Suppose I want to dry out my sneakers," I said. "What should I set on the microwave?"
"I am being serious. My sneakers are wet."
"Don't you dare put them in the microwave."
"Well, theoretically speaking, how long should I hypothetically set the microwave for?"
As this conversation goes on, of course, the microwave dings. Done. The guy who can track computer hackers and perform astrophysical calculations finds that the new microwave oven is belching "an angry cloud of thick, black smoke. The kind you see in newsreels, when the oil refinery blows up. And the stench -- it smelled like an old tire burning.
"I swung open the microwave, and another cloud of smoke belched out. I reached in and tried pulling out the sneakers -- they still looked like sneakers, but had the texture of hot mozzarella cheese. I tossed them and the glass tray out of the kitchen window. The tray shattered in the driveway, and the smoldering sneakers lay seething next to the plum tree."
Things go from bad to hilarious: He tries to clean the microwave, walls and ceiling, but just smears the soot around. He tries to drive out the smell by boiling vanilla on the stove. "The kitchen no longer smells like a burning old blackwall tire. No, now it smells like a burning new whitewall tire." The pot of vanilla scorches. With his girlfriend's arrival imminent, he tries to slap some cookies into the oven as a preemptive peace offering. "Well, a third of the cookies slid off the pan and stuck on the bottom of the oven where they turn to cinders." And on and on.
"Cuckoo's Egg" was a great yarn; "Snake Oil" is a manifesto. It comes at a propitious time; the on-line world has been hyped beyond recognition. Most Americans are already deeply sick of buzzwords they still don't understand. Why in the world are our newspapers and newsweeklies printing "universal resource locators" -- those gibberish codes http://www. ncsa.uiuc.edu/scms/Metascience/ Home/welcome.html that lead computer users to particular sites on the Internet? Why do we get stories about every twist and turn of the information superhighway when steel-and-concrete highways are crumbling? Why in God's name is Bill Gates a celebrity?
His distaste for hype comes naturally and honestly. Stoll cares deeply about relationships, and about loyalty -- sometimes, to extremes. Offered a drink, he asks, "Do you want to hear a story?" Turns out his father was drinking a beer once and young Stoll asks for a taste. His father smiled and said, "Later. When you're older." A few years later, the same beverage, the same question, the same answer. His father has long since died, but Cliff Stoll is waiting: "I still have never drunk alcohol."
His Internet warning message, predictably, is not popular among those who spend their days and nights reaching out into the ether for information, companionship and argument. They strongly believe that any lack of contact with humanity is inside Stoll's head, not inside their computers. The Internet apostate gets his share of vituperative postings and hate mail, the angry calls to his home (well, he told everyone from newspaper reporters to the people who send him e-mail that his number is listed in the Oakland phone book).
"I've seen about a half-dozen" of the flames, he says. "Pretty nasty stuff. It's not surprising -- the Internet is the land of the rude."
Take this posting by Colorado-based electronic activist Dave Hughes on the WELL, an on-line service that has been a longtime Stollhangout. Hughes called the book "a Hamletesque performance" that was full of "pure and intentional exaggeration" and growled, "I won't cut Stoll one inch. I can't stand a con man. Especially ones calling others Snake Oil salesmen."
That's not the universal cyberspace reaction, though -- especially among the Net-heads who have known Stoll for many of the 15 years he's been on-line. Fans of "Cuckoo's Egg" and his techno-buddies may disagree with him, but they generally cut him the kind of slack doled out to wayward friends. They argue that puppy-charming Stoll is simply preaching moderation, and he's really just combating the hype, and, you know, it's Cliff. The traitor as mascot.
"After all," says a friend, "nobody has sweated more blood to make the Net a special place."
GRAPHIC: Photo, dudley m. brooks, Author Clifford Stoll:
"I love technology. I love computers. It's the cult of computing that bothers
me; it's the alienation of it." Author Clifford Stoll:
"I hear so much positive about the Internet, I think it's time for someone to
raise a flag."
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