Book Review
Silicon Snake Oil
by Clifford Stoll

For almost every technoculturist optimistically touting the benefits that information technology provide to society, there is a neo-Luddite ready to counter those claims. Friction. Opposing views. Blinders on and the path is straight. But in true postmodern form, most of us realize that there is no way of stating absolutely and unerringly whether technology’s effects have been solely positive or negative. They are unique to the individuals and their perceptions of how technology has helped or hindered them. How we perceive technology’s effects on society depends upon the lenses we are observing them through.

“Every hour you’re behind a keyboard is sixty minutes that you’re not doing something else” (p.14)

In Silicon Snake Oil, Stoll has decided to adopt the stance that technology is diminishing the “life experience” for the masses and that it is time to critically examine how society has been collectively swindled into believing that computers and the Internet are bettering our lives. What differentiates Stoll from many other anti-technologists is that he was once a proponent of information technology and extolled its virtues. In fact, he was one of the pioneers of the Internet. Upon first glance, this would appear to provide Stoll with added credibility, since he is obviously very knowledgeable with the workings of the Internet and has used it for almost all the reasons people today commonly use it – communication, information, learning, work, and pleasure. Unfortunately, he fails to persuade that technology has diminished the “life experience”. After reading example after example of his reasons for spurning technology, one is left with the sense that Stoll is just another person with his own unsubstantiated viewpoint who published it for the world to read.

“Much of what comes across the screen is a surrogate for experience” (p.149)

Stoll’s greatest complaint is that the use of computers and networks by individuals reduces the quality of life for all. For Stoll, the greatest part of living is actually experiencing nature and real-live human beings. He argues that life is about the people, places, and things that you experience in the non-virtual, physical, social world. He refuses to consider that online experience can be a worthwhile use of one’s time. It is likely that Sherry Turkle (Life on the Screen) would disagree with his negation of online participation as a worthwhile social activity. She, and others, have studied the differences between online and offline social behaviours extensively and have found that the feelings, the emotions, and the interactions between people separated by, and participating with, technology are very complex. And yes, they exist.

“No amount of data, bandwidth, or processing power can substitute for inspired thought” (p.194)

Throughout his book, Stoll repeatedly uses the word “substitute” to explain how the virtual world is displacing our physical world..  He is of the opinion that technology and humanity can not work hand in hand, since each reduces the time available for the other: chat rooms substitute for face to face conversations; digital images are substitutes for the actual object; distance-learning substitutes for hands-on education. What he fails to grasp is that these experiences work in conjunction with each other. For example, what if  the awe and wonder generated in a child by a downloaded astronomical photograph is the stone that begins her path to becoming a scientist? No 8-year-old is going to observe the Orion nebulae with her bare eyes, or even a pair of binoculars. Technology can provide her with an image to which she would otherwise be blind. In this case, data can lead to inspiration.

“This nonplace [online] lures us to surrender our time on earth” (p.4)

Perhaps Stoll’s greatest downfall is his inability to accept that society is undergoing a transformation into something new and unknown, and an integral part of the process is the abandonment of some of the traditional ways of interacting with others. That is not to say that what he laments as lost will never be regained, but it may take some time for society to find a healthy balance between online and offline existence. This is a necessary step in our socioevolution (the process of evolving not only as physical beings, but as a collective social being as well). The Internet is not a “nonplace”.  Rather, it is a very real place where new ideas are being born, new friendships are being made, and a new definition of “life” is thriving.