Clifford Stoll's best-selling book "The Cuckoo's Egg" was an exciting account of how a Berkeley astronomer first detected, then trapped a spy-hacker who had penetrated U.S. government and research computers--a true adventure tale. This new volume, though it lacks the thrill of a detection plot, shows that Stoll the man has wisdom as well as ingenuity, and that Stoll the writer can be penetrating as well as full of life. His subject is the current mindless infatuation with computers, the shameless overselling of the Internet, and the damage our misunderstanding and overestimation of those pleasant inventions may be doing to our schools and our libraries, our businesses and our laboratories, even our minds and our spirits.
As a certified, charming hero of the Internet, Stoll has considerable authority. Gently but with that authority, he administers a fatal grain of salt to all sorts of baloney: the plausible hokum of Artificial Intelligence entrepreneurs; the vague, semi-informed enthusiasm of converts like Al Gore; the gullibility of school boards and administrators who spend freely on faddish programs and flashy, obsolescent hardware that is more limited, less flexible than the more enduring, abused resources of books and teachers; the merry destruction of real libraries, with books and periodicals to read, in the name of hip technology; the inhumane underbelly of the Internet; its illusion of freedom and being free; New Age idiocy; the pervasive confusion that mistakes data for information and information for knowledge and knowledge for wisdom.
Stoll's approach is whimsical rather than polemical. He speaks in examples and folksy parables rather than abstractions. This anecdotal, playful approach is appropriate, since what Stoll speaks for is the experience of reality: real communities, real experiences of nature and art, real knowledge, the actual world in which computing is a wonderful tool and plaything, and for which computing is no substitute. This warning to respect reality is more powerful because it is more essential than his many ingenious discussions of the technical limitations of computers as archives, sources and tools. (What use, for example, are archives in a realm where format revolutions occur every 10 or 20 years?)
Some of his funniest passages simply recount predictions of the future made not too long ago. David Sarnoff of RCA in 1939 said: "It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation."
Stoll appreciates the thousands of useful bulletin boards and programs and "usernets," but in one of his analogies he thinks about the damage done to neighborhoods by urban renewal and highway projects, damage to brownstones and trolley lines and towns invisible from the Interstate. The conviction of perhaps the best-known computer maven in the country is that similar damage is being done to the infrastructure of American education, commerce, knowledge and community by the false panacea of the Internet--from which, again, the ruination is invisible.
Passionate but not argumentative, he tells the parable of his own experience with Prof. Li Fang, his supervisor when as a young astronomer Stoll was sent on a fellowship to China. During the Cultural Revolution, Li Fang did four years hard labor in the countryside. Recently returned, he was studying star observations from the Sung and Ming dynasties; from these erratic, millennium-old measurements, one could learn valuable information about the wandering of the earth's North Pole. One day, young Stoll enters the professor's office to find him working with 12 abacuses; hustling back to his own room, on his early-'80s portable computer the American takes a few days to devise a program that makes in a few minutes the calculations Prof. Li had worked on for five months. He shows the professor the elegant graphs.
"Bu tswo" --not bad, says the master. Then, smiling, points out the error that appears in the computer's calculations, because the program had not incorporated any allowance for imperfectly sampled data.
"He hadn't spent his summer doing rote mechanical calculations," writes Stoll. "Instead, he'd developed a complex method for analyzing data that took into account the accuracy of different observers and ambiguities in the historical record. His results literally crafted by hand, showed his meticulous care. Moreover, they were right. I returned to my office humbled."
The point of this story is not that no program could ever replicate Professor Li's method, but that the capacities of our machines always stand ready to tempt us away from thought, away from reality. The machine is innocent enough: it is our own fantasies of ease or power that can easily undermine us.
It is strange that the panacea urged by Gore (or Gingrich) arouses skepticism in someone with a rather spectacular record of understanding the gizmo in question. For anyone who has been bored or offended by chatter on the Internet, or has fainted with boredom wading through a file transfer protocol for a disappointing file, or has wasted days trying to get some unnecessary but sexy piece of newly purchased hardware or software to work, Stoll confirms an intuition that flitted through one's mind: Maybe it isn't me--maybe this isn't all quite as great as it's cracked up to be!
For all his folksy style sometimes drifting into the cutesy, his charming, quintessential nerd digressions (learn here the best method for nailing Jell-O to a wall), there is something noble about Stoll. He represents an almost forgotten figure, a type of person that predates the erratic nerd or the slick technocrat: the enlightened soul in Chekhov or Ibsen, the medical man or engineer who defends irrigation and vaccination and tolerance, the scientist in 19th-Century European novels who argues with the parish priest and defends tolerance, modern art, public education and public health. In this country, Jefferson and William Carlos Williams and Twain's "Connecticut Yankee" represent survival of that figure. It is a comfort to imagine such a human bicycling down Bancroft Avenue thinking about bird-watching and the Great Library of Alexandria, in his backpack a book about stars and a boxful of floppies.