The Techno Traitor : Author Cliff Stoll is no technophobe. But the former hero of the hyper-hip is sounding the warning about cyberspace. It's just no substitute for real life, he says.


It's hard to imagine a more reluctant traitor to the techno-revolution than Cliff Stoll. You can almost see the lobes of his brain wrestling as he ponders the concerns that turned him against the cause.

In 1987, the astrophysicist used his scientific sleuthing skills and a bit of programming wizardry to track down German spies who had hacked and cracked their way into sensitive computer systems via the budding Internet.

Stoll's best-selling account of that affair, "The Cuckoo's Egg" (Doubleday, 1989), earned him a rare measure of respect from the hyper-hip Wired set, and is still passed among admiring nerds.

But as word of Stoll's new book leaks out on World Wide Web sites and news groups, the response is less than electric. In fact, he's getting flamed.

At the very moment the mainstream media are finally embracing digitization--and spouting enough cyber-babble each week to swamp a 10-gigabyte hard drive--Stoll is having second thoughts.

To understand what has happened to him, to understand his "deep ambivalence" toward the revolution he helped fuel, an e-mail interview just won't do.

To understand why his next addition to bookstores' suddenly overflowing "Cyber" section is titled "Silicon Snake Oil--Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" (Doubleday, 1995), it's important to hang out with this guy in real time, in the non-digitized here and now.

Stoll lives in a 1917 blue-and-yellow Craftsman-style house with his sweetheart, Pat, a coroner's pathologist, and their 5-month-old daughter, Zoe.

He doesn't own a car and the 1956 RCA television set in the living room doesn't work. But bmany of the classic, wood-cased radios he collects and refurbishes do.

With old redwood paneling and bookshelves, and ancient faded wallpaper, the house could be a museum to old technology. Stoll points out several telegraph keys that he restored. Then something else catches his eye.

"Look! Look at this!" he yelps, his circuits abruptly shorted by exuberance.

Just outside the front window, two connected coffee cans hang over a rain-soaked lemon tree like an ill-conceived birdhouse. Talking at the approximate speed of a wayward atom in a particle accelerator, Stoll explains:

"I was looking out the window when I saw a 12-year-old neighbor across the street, and she was crying because a dog had been hit by a car."

Cars, it seems, were always zooming down this quiet, ash and maple-shaded street. But community pleas to the City Council got nowhere. "I figured it would be a cool thing to measure the speed of the cars as they go by. So I built this microwave oscillator."

The coffee cans, Stoll says, are a one-gigahertz antenna that "squirts radar beams out at the street." "See!" he says, hoisting up a jury-rigged digital display by the window: "22 m.p.h. . . . 27 m.p.h. . . ."

Stoll heads into a rear bedroom containing a crib, a computer built into an old wooden desk, and two VDTs whose screens he has covered with blue Magic Marker messages.

The homemade radar gun is linked by interface to his Mac, Stoll says. Digging through stacks of paper, he pulls out several computer-generated graphs dense with information about the street's traffic.

The city got a look at them, Stoll says, grinning, and coughed up two new speed bumps.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

"Oh, oh! Did you park out front?" Stoll blurts, glancing at the computer screen from which a little cuckoo icon squawks a warning that it's the second Tuesday of the month and Oakland's meter readers are on the prowl.

Stoll steps onto the porch of his old house at the moment his next-door neighbor steps out of hers clutching a child. The scent of new blossoms cuts through the gloom of a rainy East Bay day. Stoll bounds to a white-picket fence and leans over. He asks about his neighbor's sick dog. She says it's leukemia. His forehead furrows. He speaks soothing words. The neighbor's eyes tear. She smiles.

Moments later, as Stoll strides down the sidewalk in his beltless beige corduroy pants (torn) and blue cord shirt (torn), he finally lands squarely on the topic at hand.

"One of the problems of technology is that people think it's a substitute for real life," he says. "I don't have to deal with my neighbor when I can log onto the Internet for two hours a night.

"Virtual community? I no longer believe it. It's a weak substitute, an ersatz community. I'm beginning to think seriously that there are people who really would prefer to talk to a machine than a human. But this is not a society I want my Zoe to grow up in."

Stoll, 44, is quick to admit that his anxiety is not original. Luddites were crying wolf about technology long before Aldous Huxley envisioned a "Brave New World."

But Stoll is no technophobe. He tapped out Morse code messages on a home-built ham radio back in 1964. He cobbled together his first computer in 1976, and connected to the Internet's antecedent, the Arpanet, shortly thereafter.

Stoll spends time on-line each day, answering e-mail and lurking about Net sites. He admits in his book to "nerd-like glee for the next generation of microprocessors." His Macintosh, he writes, "ever itches for faster modems."

Still, he's grown uncomfortable with the notion that the Net is going to make the world a better place. "It's a lie," he says.


Stoll enters his neighborhood Chinese restaurant and greets the owner in high-pitched Mandarin, a language he got practice in while teaching astronomy in China for a year.

A moment later, over tea, he struggles for an English word, a term to describe what happens on the Internet: "Cacocracy?" he says, his gentle face contorting into a perplexed smile. "Caco . . . Cacapho . . . How would you say 'a democracy of noise?' Cacophonocracy?

"In the real world," he says, "if you want to spout into the wind, you can get a corner soapbox at People's Park. But the Net makes all voices equally loud. Very quickly discussions descend into name calling: 'You're a Nazi! You're a communist!' "

Yet the mainstream media are hyping the Net as if it were civilization's salvation, he says, suddenly in the odd position of schooling a print reporter on the value of newspapers.

"When I want news, I pick up a copy of the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the (San Francisco) Examiner and the (Oakland) Tribune," he says. "I have enough reading material to keep me going all day long. And it's all right there in a way I can quickly skim or read in depth. What a terrific instrument of communication!"

And there's another advantage, Stoll says, in a burst of admiration sure to rile media skeptics. A good paper, he says, "has a guarantee of truth behind it. How do I know that? Because if you start publishing lies, you get sued. Therefore what I read in the newspapers, I trust.

"None of that happens on the Internet," he says. "There's no guarantee of truthfulness. Not a hint of it. If you make a mistake and say, 'Hydrochloric acid cures the common cold,' hey, no problem."

Another thing, Stoll says: Computer devotees and futurists tout the computer as the liberator of creative talent. He doesn't buy it.

"Look at the computer magazines, Mondo or Wired. Everything is clip art, distorted photographs, zillions of fonts. None of that crap is good. You don't see brilliant line drawings. No one wants to pay for that. The result is, illustrators are hungry, while we have thousands and thousands of people calling themselves 'graphic designers.'

"Computers and software reward drones and punish creative people," he continues, really uncorked now. To use a computer well requires strict adherence to rules, to manuals, to someone else's programming. But "creative people don't follow someone else's rule book."

Stoll thinks it's time for the public to turn on its "bogometer." That mythic gauge will demonstrate, he says, that most of the digital revolution hoopla is bogus, that computing is often a convoluted and costly fix to things that weren't broke to begin with.

On-line shopping, he says, will deliver the same "detritus, dross and dreck" they get on the Home Shopping Network.

The much-discussed Internet romance? It's possible, Stoll says--especially for women, who are as vastly outnumbered in cyberspace as they are in Alaska. He warns, though, that the situation is similar in both places: "The odds are good but the goods are odd."

Stoll doubts electronic books will ever offer much competition to real ones; he blanches at what he considers the shallow, fragmented, and ultimately inefficient research that occurs on-line. And he calls the celebrated notion of bookless libraries "a hallucination of on-line addicts, network neophytes and library-automation insiders."

Such apostasy is not being met with universal accord.

Jon Katz, Wired magazine's media critic, has long praised the Net for giving every citizen, and especially young ones, a power that had largely been monopolized by media conglomerates--the power of mass communication.

He finds Stoll's contrarian venting in "Silicon Snake Oil" timely and healthy. But he thinks the author "gets a bit facile in dismissing the wonder and miracle of this stuff."

Howard Rheingold, who edited the book "The Virtual Community," (Addison Wesley, 1993) is one of the Net's most loyal proponents. He says he has only glanced through an advance copy of Stoll's book. But that was enough to reveal what he considers an important irony.

One of more amusing passages in "Snake Oil" is a reprint of a heated exchange that took place on the Well, a popular Bay Area Net gateway and gathering point. The flame war began when a woman suggested, erroneously, that Stoll's first book might have been ghost-written.

The sad irony, Rheingold says, is that in June, that woman announced on the Well that she had terminal cancer. "A number of people from the Well took turns sitting by her death bed. . . . Her dying would have been a lot lonelier had she not been on the Well."

Rheingold says that he has long dissuaded Net aficionados from becoming utopian, urging that they not "confuse the tools--computer networks--with the task, which is being good citizens and building community."

What Stoll is preaching doesn't necessarily contradict Rheingold. All he really hopes, he says, is that people will pay more attention to the nascent info highway than they did to America's interstate highway system at its inception.

"I don't know anyone in 1952 who said the interstate highway system will destroy our cities, that it will change our foreign policy and make us dependent on foreign oil, that it will turn our neighborhoods into isolated places where people don't talk to each other. . . .

"I think it is time for someone to wave a yellow flag, to say, 'Look, you're running as fast as you can toward this virtual universe, this antisocial, ephemeral place which lacks any resemblance to anything nice.'

"I think it's the responsibility of technofolk to say, 'Hey, look at what you're leaving behind.' "


Back at his house, Stoll promptly drops the subject. He flashes a picture of Zoe and beams. He points out stained glass windows he made, modestly tracing his skill as it progresses from room to room.

Stoll talks about his ongoing research on the atmosphere of Jupiter--"bread and butter astrophysics" he says--and about an astronomy book he's working on.

"I'm having fun. I'm extraordinarily happy. Life is rich," he says, apparently unbothered by the paradox that his rich, real life is so intricately entwined with technology. All around him dark shelves are stuffed with novels, ledges lined with books, yo-yos and self-designed gadgets. "All the physics toys I wanted as a kid," he says.

His mind bopping and dithering, Stoll grabs two plastic bottles, shakes them, and with more enthusiasm than Mr. Wizard ever mustered, displays a swirling vortex of colored water.

A moment later, he slips an object under a powerful microscope that sits on a table in the dining room. He stares for a minute, then joyfully waves his visitor over for a look, practically pushing his head to the eye pieces.

Zoom in and a colorful, multi-textured world appears. It looks like a city as viewed from a blimp, like meticulously plowed fields or an abstract painting.

"Is that just too cool?" Stoll asks. "Look at the precision. This is truly a work of art!"

The object of his admiration? A circuit board.

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