Oiling the Snake

Written by larry on September 8th, 2013

I just finished rereading Silicon Snake Oil, by Clifford Stoll. The first time I read this was in 1995, shortly after it was published. Having just established himself in the public eye with The Cucoo’s Egg, Stoll took the position that the then newly-mainstreamed Internet suffered far too many flaws to ever fulfill the world’s expectations.

Eighteen years later, it’s interesting to see where Mr. Stoll got it right and where he got it wrong. We should probably keep in mind that Stoll was an astronomer by trade, not an engineer or computer scientist, but still. When I finished the book, I couldn’t help but remember the oft-quoted words of a Western Union executive, when his company was offered a license on the patent for the newly-invented telephone:

We do not see that this device will be ever capable of sending recognizable speech over a distance of several miles. Hubbard and Bell want to install one of their telephone devices in every city. The idea is idiotic on the face of it… This device is inherently of no use to us. We do not recommend its purchase.”

Well, a lot has happened since 1995. One of Stoll’s biggest recurring themes was how the inconvenience and low speed of dial-up modems would prevent widespread penetration of internet access in the consumer world. In only eighteen years, we’re now in a situation where DSL, cable, and wireless providers are beating each other’s brains out to offer us megabit-rate services, at an inflation-adjusted cost far below what we paid for dial tone in 1995. It’s widespread enough that there are a few fringe players in Congress who are starting to talk about broadband access as a ‘right’. And once you’ve got that always-on fast pipe there, all sorts of things become possible… and a whole bunch of objections just go away.

Another of Stoll’s predictions was that e-books would never catch on, because of the discomfort and inconvenience of reading a book on the flickering screen of a large, heavy computer. Well, Amazon doesn’t publish numbers, but after looking at a bunch of  sources, I’ve estimated the number of Kindle readers out there as somewhere between 30 and 50 million. But whatever it is, it’s got the traditional publishers quaking in their boots. Like his prediction about modems, the specifics of Stoll’s arguments were correct – nobody would want to read books on a flickering screen of a large, heavy computer. But the objection was rendered irrelevant by technological improvements.

Another of Stoll’s observations was that spending larger amounts of time in front of the computer would limit social interaction. That sure would be news to today’s teens and twenty-somethings who pretty much spend all their waking hours texting, tweeting, and updating their Facebook entries.  Sure it changes social interaction. But one of the desirable side-effects, at least to me is that it’s made the computer geeks more socially acceptable, not less so. A win, at least I think so.

It’s not like Stoll batted zero. His comments about net privacy, especially considering recent news, would certainly resonate with today’s audience. And his deriding of the internet as a panacea for all problems educational certainly wasn’t far off the mark – putting connected computers in a classroom won’t instantly resolve all of education’s woes. But it does open whole new worlds, from distance learning (especially valuable if you happen to live in the third world) to open-source textbooks. So perhaps he scored half a point there.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that I could have guessed any better than Stoll. And there is something to be said for having the confidence to ‘walk the walk’, to publish your predictions for all the world to see, for all eternity. That takes guts.

But the quick version is that when predicting the future, assuming that the underlying technology won’t dramatically improve, and in an astonishingly short period of time, will almost certainly lead you off-course.

Which of course begs the question “What are we missing today?”



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