Saturday, 18 May 2013

Silicon Snake Oil? Hindsight is always 20-20

Clifford Stoll is perhaps best known for tracking down Markus Hess - a German blach-hat computer hacker recruited by the KGB to provide US military secrets to the soviets. This story is told is Stoll's own book The Cuckoo's Egg, Katie Hafner and John Markoff's Cyberpunk as well as the Nova episode embedded below.

Recently I have started to read Stoll's second book Silicon Snake Oil (1995) - slated, at least by the publisher, as "The first book to question the inflated claims - and hidden costs - of the Internet."

Strong words indeed. But nearly 20 years on - how do Stoll's often charmingly  dystopian predictions hold up? Not very well.

" Well, I don't believe that phone books, newspapers, magazines, or corner video stores will disappear as computer networks spread. Nor do I think that my telephone will merge with my computer, to become some sort of information appliance."
 A pretty major prediction on page 11 and one that has clearly not stood the test of time: California stops automatic phone book delivery, newspapers struggle to find sustainable financial models, Blockbuster moves towards a more retail than rental model. I won't provide a link to the telephone/computer hybrid inofmation appliance - you're possibly reading this on it.
"Whether yo-yos, books, records or insurance, there are good reasons why business doesn't work over the Internet."
Of course this was written in a world before Amazon, eBay, comparethemarket and Yoyo Shop.

Stoll's is an astronomer, so perhaps his ideas on scientific research turned out to be closer to the mark?
"Researchers naturally save their best work to publish in jounrals and books, realizing that the review process ensures that better papers make into print. They're unlikely to post good, original stuff to the network first; somebody might swipe their material."
Well - concerns over data swiping are still around - but we also publish material online before publication using preprint servers such as ArXiv and are moving, albeit slowly and uncertainly, towards online, open, peer review.

Thankfully Stoll sees the funny side of all of this:
"Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler.

Wrong? Yep.
At the time, I was trying to speak against the tide of futuristic commentary on how The Internet Will Solve Our Problems.

Gives me pause. Most of my screwups have had limited publicity: Forgetting my lines in my 4th grade play. Misidentifying a Gilbert and Sullivan song while suddenly drafted to fill in as announcer on a classical radio station. Wasting a week hunting for planets interior to Mercury's orbit using an infrared system with a noise level so high that it couldn't possibly detect 'em. Heck - trying to dry my sneakers in a microwave oven (a quarter century later, there's still a smudge on the kitchen ceiling)

And, as I've laughed at others' foibles, I think back to some of my own cringeworthy contributions.

Now, whenever I think I know what's happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff...

Warm cheers to all,
-Cliff Stoll on a rainy Friday afternoon in Oakland"
Here's some newer, but just as enthusiasm rich, Stoll. If you want to predict the future: ask an experienced kindergarten teacher: