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Sep 25,1996
Cliff Stoll
A Skeptical View of Computing

Does daily life require computers, digital networks? They're irrelevant to cooking, driving, visiting, negotiating, eating, hiking, dancing, speaking, and gossiping. You don't need a keyboard to bake bread, play touch football, piece a quilt, build a stone wall, recite a poem, or say a prayer. Virtual communities chatter about cybersex, cybersluts, and cyberporn, but the real thing isn't there.

Rather than bringing us together, might our online obsession be isolating us from each other? Do computers belong in classrooms - or might they get in the way of learning? Why do libraries spend so much on multimedia rather than books, journals and librarians? If computers are so great for efficiency, how come American business productivity has been essentially flat over the past 15 years? Most of all, what's lost when we plop down in front of our keyboard?

In my comments, I'm trying - perhaps without success - to inject a few notes of skepticism into the utopian dreams of a digital wonderland.

Yes, I recognize plenty of neat projects happening online. Daily, I hear of many useful purposes that the Web serves. I often meet people who tell me how the Internet solves their problems - heck, I find it plenty handy. Today, I work on several projects that depend on the Internet.

But I choose not to concentrate on these - they're heavily reported in magazines, newspapers, television, and other talks. If you really haven't had your fill of wonderful praise for computers and the Internet, please pick up a copy of Wired magazine or any of its brethren.

Instead, I believe it's the responsibility of techies to challenge hyperbole, false promises, and gross exaggerations.

For I feel that quality engineering underpromises and overdelivers. Yet computing is famous for promises without deliveries. Result: vaporware and frustration. If our field of networked computing is to continue to grow and thrive, we must debunk an avalanche of hyperbole.

Mind you, I value skepticism, not cynicism. It's easy to be cynical - "I don't believe any of that stuff..." I hear lots of it directed at government, religion, and community leaders. From cynicsm grows disenchantment and apathy.

Much tougher is to be skeptical. Challenging both obvious and subtle assumptions requires both understanding and admiration. Being skeptical doesn't mean that I reject the claims of my friends. Rather, it means I want those claims proved. From skepticism grows truth, belief, and involvement.

In turn, I expect anyone who hears my message to be skeptical of me. I sure don't have Truth in a full-Nelson. I'm not trying to convince you - instead, I hope that a few will begin to debate claims and promises of computing.

Yes, I own a bunch of computers and regularly log on. I don't intend to heave my cpu out the window or to live in a cave. My skepticism grows out of my love for technology.

Unless we honestly challenge the claims made for technology, the bubble of hype will grow ever larger, resulting in tough times in the future.


Although best known for his academy award winning films, Clifford Stoll is also famous for his recent address at the United Nations, his gold medals from last summer's Olympics, and his fourth quarter Superbowl touchdown pass.

Dr. Stoll has published extensively on the thermodynamics of quantized electromagnetic relativity and his best selling books have been translated into twenty seven languages. For the past three years his original Broadway musical has played to standing room only crowds.

Professor Stoll's negotiations were credited with releasing several hostages and he was the first to apply Markov-chain models to global circulation, resulting in vastly more accurate climatic predictions. His Nobel prize acceptance speech emphasized the unity of all mankind; his competition at Wimbeldon demonstrated his great sportsmanship; his recent discoveries in alpha-site keratanose shows great promise for reducing certain tumors. He has broken a KGB spy ring, starred in three television documentaries, testified at numerous congressional hearings, received the Order of the Garter and the coveted Gold Star For Good Attendance at Buffalo Public School 61. His face is engraved on coins of several Asian countries.

When not teaching science to underprivileged inner city children, Senator Stoll can be found playing ten simultaneous chess matches or squeezing lumps of bituminous coal into diamonds.



Editorial Comment:

[Here's a picture of the Cover Art]

Cliff is the author of two books, Cuckoos Egg and Silicon Snake Oil. Both are recommended reading. -dra

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next up previous
Next: Oct 21996 Tim O'Reilly Up: Stanford University Computer Previous: Stanford University Computer

Dennis Allison
Fri Dec 6 18:10:05 PST 1996