Silicon Snake Oil

ISBN: 0330344420
ISBN 13: 9780330344425
By: Clifford Stoll

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About this book

In his previous work, The Cuckoo's Egg, the author related the story of how, through the Internet, he uncovered a computer spy ring. This new text deals with the myths and realities of the Internet, looking at the darker side of the information superhighway and attempting to reveal its hidden hazards.

Reader's Thoughts

Carlos Scheidegger

Nowadays, it's funny to go back and read Stoll's description along the lines of "what, they really expect me to buy books and newspaper on the internet? that's nonsense". But at the time I read it (circa 2000) it was an interesting, thought-provoking piece, regardless of whether it was ultimately wrong.


An interesting read but is very dated.


I read this not long after publication, and re-read it a year ago weeding through my books. Between the two, I would have to give it 2-3 stars.The good part is that at the time, he was correct in puncturing or deflating a lot of the most hyperbolic claims about the benefits of computers and the Internet: online shopping did have a ways to go, kids' education was not being improved by computers (and may still not be), etc.The bad part is, he was correct only in the short run. On many claims or predictions where he was absolutist, he is laughably wrong now, and we can expect his track record to continue to worsen as time passes.This is actually a pretty common failure mode for skeptics of technologies: I call this the Amara effect, after Roy Amara: "We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run."


i can't even explain how much i loved reading this book. he is just WRONG ABOUT EVERYTHING in such a delightful way. i've never seen such an extraordinary lack of foresight. cliff stoll is a smart guy who just spent a lot of time in the 90s being wrong, wrong, wrong about the future of the internet.

Benjamin Romney

I agree with many of Clifford Stoll's thoughts, but find that many of his predictions about social networking, etc. have been proven wrong. Not that what he thought social networking would do hasn't been accurate, but the fact that it has taken over as much as it has, unfortunately shows that most people don't have the foresight that he expressed in his early opinions about the internet. The social implications were pretty often spot on. Most people have moved in a direction that shows that they are more caught up in the glamour of the internet than in the realization that much valuable time is wasted in their lives because of the hollow results of the time spent. the book is now a bit dated, but should be studied by those who are continuing to develop the internet and social networks. Perhaps if some of Stoll's wisdom and observation were included in the programming efforts, less damage to society would occur.


Goodness, there's a name out of the blue. I had totally forgotten Clifford Stoll. I read the Cuckoo's Egg years ago and then when this book came out it was requested by all the Luddites on campus (many of them good friends) who were terrified by the Internet and computers. Stoll became their god for a while since here was someone on the inside with doubts. Of course, Stoll was mostly wrong, and that's why we don't hear much from him anymore.


I first came across Clifford Stoll while reading the excellentCuckoo's Egg. It's a griping real life story about how he discoveredand chased down one of the early Internet hackers. This is why when Iwas in a second hand bookstore I picked up a copy of Silicon SnakeOil. The subtitle, "Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" givesan indication about what it's about.The first thing to note is this is a book that really shows it age.Published in 1995 it was when the Internet was moving from a cosyacademic network used by scientists to the first commercial ISPs and earlyinflux of AOLers. This when the World Wide Web was still know by the browserMosaic. As will soon become apparent 13 years ago counts as ancienthistory when it comes to the 'net. The books central thesis is one of scepticism of the promises that theadvocates of the so called Information Superhighway where making. Stoll deals with theissues of information overload, signal to noise on Usenet and whetherthis technology will really turn people into infonauts or just passiveconsumers of the fire hose of information coming from another glowingbox on our desks. He saves most of his reservations for the trend atthe time to computerise education and worries the educational benefitsof computers and 'net access are being oversold. Time and again heworries we will turn into one dimensional beings denied the"authentic" experiences of actually seeing, touching, smelling andinteracting with things in the real world. There may be someinteresting ideas that are still relevant for discussion today howeverit's hard to tell because of the numerous predictions that inhindsight completely wrong.I don't blame Stoll for this. Predicting the future is always a trickybusiness. The 'net has grown up so fast and is consistently surprisingthe world with new inovations growing out of it. He's also not areactionary Luddite, he "looks forward to the time when our Internetreaches every town and trailer park". However at the time he wrotethis book he was clearly having a crisis of faith in what thefuturists where promising.A few illustrative predictions are worth quoting. When discussingshopping he asserts "no electronic shopping can compare with thevariety, quality, and experimental richness of a visit to even the mostmundane malls". This is before Amazon gave the bricks and mortar bookshops a serious run for their money. He talks of the frustration ofsearching for information by keywords in titles of documents throughvarious gopher services. This is before the all powerful Google"solved" the problem of search by using links to information to rankthe usefulness of a page.One thing that becomes clear is many of the obstacles he mentions has eitherbeen solved or is in the process of improving. The ease of use ofcomputers which is another bugbear of his, usability has been late inthe game of software development but people like Apple take problemslike getting Grandma on the 'net very seriously. Humans have provedremarkably ingenious at solving seemingly insurmountable problems.There are some areas he flags for concern that may still berelevant today. He wonders if the instant response of email isaffecting our ability to write properly. If the ability to selfpublish will drown the 'net is a sea of dross. If social interactionson the screen can ever replace physically meeting people. However somuch of this is mixed in with problems I know are now solved it's hardto not just write them off as excessive pessimism on Stoll's part.In summary I would recommend reading the book if you want to remindyourself of where the 'net came from and what the early days lookedlike. However if your looking for a clear treatise on the potentialdownsides of the information world I suggest looking for a more recentbook on the subject.


Unintentionally hilarious. I encourage everyone to go to Amazon and request it in Kindle edition.


I'm a bit mixed on this book. The first time I read it, I thought that Clifford had some good points. The second time I read it I just felt that he might be a little jaded.


A great book in its time. It was a warning and a painting of a picture to come that showed the author's vision to be true.


An old book by Clifford Stoll on the perils of uncritical incorporation of online everything into our daily lives. It's remarkable how well the criticisms in this book hold up. The Internet and online resources have changed a lot since this book was written, but the uncritical way we interact with it -- and with related networks -- remains the same.Of course, Stoll writes in a long skeptical tradition, and he acknowledges it: "Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate." (Thoreau -- Walden, naturally. Quoted at the start of chapter two. The quote is appropriate both for the attitude and for the dated technical reference -- magnetic telegraphs for Thoreau, 8-bit color depths for Stoll.)Recommended to anyone who believes e-mail has made the US Postal Service obsolete; anyone who checks a Blackberry just because it's there; and anyone who has, without any sense of irony, sent an instant message to someone sitting less than fifty feet away.

John Kirk

A lot of this book is outdated (since it's 15 years old), but there are also some points which are still valid. When he talks about what computers can do, he's normally wrong, e.g. saying that online shops don't display photos of what you're buying. However, when he talks about what computers should do then he's worth listening to.Basically, he's saying that there are only so many hours in the day, and time spent on computers is time that you don't spend doing other things, so computers can get in the way of living your life. The main snag is that this gets quite repetitive, so it would work better now as a chapter rather than a book, e.g. an extended essay.Most of his prophecies about computers were wrong, but I think he did accurately predict some future trends. Look at all the people who go to music concerts (spending a lot of money on tickets) and then spend the whole time holding up their phone/camera to film it. I don't understand that mindset at all: either watch it on TV (bigger screen and cheaper) or enjoy the live performance.

Jeremy Schubert

Althought a bit on a soapbox, Stoll excellently refutes some common 'this must be correct' thoughts about what improvements in computer technologies will do for us. A lot like, but a much easier read, the book Data Smog.

Tommy /|

Written in 1995 - this is Stoll's perspective that the internet is a time-wasting, soul-sucking device that removes a lot of the best parts of Life by tying the user to the keyboard. His lamentable position is nothing new - and has been extolled many times since then in print, tv, and in face-to-face lectures and discussions I have attended as a student. Some of his predictions - such as the one detailing eCommerce as a non-viable commercial entity - are not only laughable but also downright embarrassing. Still, it provides an interesting snapshot of how the internet looked just as the information revolution was taking its first step of infancy.

Keith Slade

OK book about how computers are NOT revolutionizing education.

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