Silicon Snake Oil Review
When I saw Cliff Stoll's new book, Silicon Snake Oil, in the bookshop in paperback, I was immediately in two minds whether to buy it or not. I knew from reading several reviews that I probably wasn't going to enjoy the message, but in the belief that sometimes good medicine tastes bad and that his previous book is still one of my favorite books, I put down the cash on the counter and bought it.
In the late eighties, Cliff Stoll, an astronomer, took on some Systems Manager responsibilities at a US West Coast university and while tracking down a minor accounting loss in the university's computer usage billing system uncovered a hacker who was eventually traced to Germany and, via a group of hacker friends, was selling the results of his infiltration of US military computers to the KGB. When the story hit the headlines Cliff Stoll became famous overnight and his notoriety spread when his popular book, The Cuckoo's Egg, telling the tale of how he unraveled the hacker's trail was published.
Cliff's second book, Silicon Snake Oil, attempts to go against the tide of mass media hype and detail the negative aspects of Online and computer culture.
In a recent letter to the magazine Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, a reader complained that the previous month's article on Web Browsers was hopelessly out of date. The reader stated that "nine months is a lifetime" in the current history of the Internet. In a recent edition of the Economist their software industry survey said that Internet development seems to be currently running on "dog years," one year is equivalent to seven years under normal circumstances and that six months' lead on a competitor is an enormous advantage.
Silicon Snake Oil is unfortunately affected by this timing problem. When I read it, the first thing that struck me was how out of date it already is! I checked the publication dates and it was first published in 1995 — my copy was only printed sometime in 1996.
In the book Cliff tells us that Mosaic is the coolest browser around. This is a book that has hit the bookshops in paperback form this year that is telling us about the pitfalls of the pre-Netscape, pre-Yahoo Internet culture. I suspect the majority of today's online users have never seen let alone used the original Mosaic browser!
The book is also therefore a pre-Windows 95 account and many of the gripes seem to be based on Cliff's UNIX and Mac-based computer experiences which also weakens many of his arguments. Many of Cliff's arguments about the difficulties of using various e-mail packages, esoteric command-line commands and geek-orientated documentation are irrelevant unless you use some of the older and more unfriendly versions of Unix. Today, if you have reasonably standard PC equipment, getting connected is not too difficult and if the software comes preinstalled on a new machine you may only have to plug in your telephone and click on an icon to get online.
Cliff talks a lot about libraries, the classification of data and card indexes, and again many of his complaints have been made irrelevant by not so recent developments in Internet indices and search engines for the Web and for Usenet. Some of his bold statements, made only a year or so ago or so have now become plain out of date and would mislead someone who was thinking about getting online.
Cliff's views about e-mail and its unreliability are also rapidly becoming redundant as most online users now will be using e-mail via a "professional" Internet provider who is not likely to, like one of his examples, sell a machine with unsent e-mail left in the spool!. Also few people will have the patience to handle several e-mail accounts and cope with the accompanying problems of doing so. In comparison to most users' experience today, the quality of Internet service is much greater than the almost homebrew, academic sites that were held together by ex-student Unix wizards that Cliff writes about. Today's Internet user demands quality service.
Cliff's main aim in writing the book was to debunk much of the mass media hype about the Internet that was beginning to emerge. But, instead of writing a balanced book, he wrote pages and pages from a negative viewpoint that sometimes begins to sound like whining.
Looking at Cliff's web page makes you wonder whether he has very much experience at what he is talking about at all. The last time I looked it hadn't been updated for ages and ages and one of the links was broken! It is a serious candidate for a "Worst of the Web" award.
Sometimes Cliff sounds like a person who is having a general problem with change. He includes a comment about Wired magazine's avant-garde typography from a traditional typographer. To me, this is like saying that you don't like modern art. Major changes in art always seem to be accompanied and spurred on by a change of media accompanied with the breaking of the established rules of good taste.
When the printing press became established, the book culture, which has lasted several hundred years, was born. During this time the importance of oral tradition, that lasted for several thousand years, has been all but lost. We are now entering a similar period of transition as the electronic media of delivering words to minds is becoming more and more dominant. Cliff's message that we shouldn't throw away the old with the rush towards the new is very important, but his tone, compared to the optimistic voice of Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital is very backward-looking in most places.
In summary, if you can, make Cliff's day and borrow his book from a library. He is very worried that money will be diverted from books into hardware that will rapidly be worthless. A point worth noting. If you are able to find his book there, do take the time to read it for it's good points, but please don't read it if you are just thinking of getting on line for the first time. Had Cliff published this book online using the emerging Web it would have been a prophetic document to look back on, but as a book currently on sale it is a relic of passing age when the Internet was known and used only by the academic elite.
Silicon Snake Oil by Clifford Stoll
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