Silicon Snake Oil: The Road to Hell

This ain’t no technological breakdown, oh no, this is the road to hell. This ain’t no upwardly mobile freeway, oh no, this is the road to hell. Chris Rea (1999).

So it is. As Astronomer Clifford Stoll foresaw in his 1995 book, Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, about computers and civilization, the Internet, and information technology. “A place where there’s plenty of talkers and few listeners.” Where “Conversations are strangely vacant of substance.” (p.113)

Keep in mind, this was before social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Zoom. There was no Google, Amazon, Goodreads, or WordPress. Never even mind Instagram, Tiktok, or Tinder. Chat GPT? not even a pipe dream. Wireless internet, Netflix, YouTube? Not in anyone’s wildest imagination.

The road to hell

Smart phones? Ha! In fact, in 1995, I didn’t even have a personal computer, much less a cell phone. Nevertheless, I was in college and learning about computers and the internet. I did have an .edu email address. Moreover, I tried writing in html code.

Like many others, I thought this just might make all the difference and transform humans to the next level. A higher level where peace and prosperity was shared, and there’d be no need for war. Ha!

Man! Was I wrong. But Stoll wasn’t. Oh, he did get a lot wrong. For sure. However, what he got wrong was the tech stuff. All the problems he wrote about have been solved. That is, those regarding access, time, speed, bandwidth, and money.

What he got right was human nature and the damage we can wreck on ourself and each other.

The Damage Done

might not be reversible. When I googled Stoll I discovered that he is now “heartbroken”, with what the information highway has become. In the book he said this:

“The Internet began as a technological community, with convivial neighbors who’d help each other. Its friendly anarchy promised to revolutionize social interactions and transcend political boundaries. With time, it developed into something less. (p.112-3)

Don’t blame Trump for what happened. That’s just plain lazy, rigid, and self-serving. Stoll recognized our lazy nature right away, or “the principle of least effort.” (aka social loafing.) Writing about “search engine optimization” (SEO), before it was a thing:

“most researchers, even serious scholars, will choose easily available information sources, even when they are low quality. Researchers are usually satisfied with whatever can be easily found rather than expending more effort to dig up better sources. Confronted with a variety of pathways to an answer, people choose the one that requires the least amount of work. People are lazy. Put something online–anything–and researchers will love it, whether or not it’s right. (p.185)

There it is. Nearly thirty years ago. Now, it’s not only “researchers and scholars” – it’s everyone. 

This is the road to hell.

the freeway to hell

Oh yeah. Now what? I don’t know. Even my psych-girl is doubtful the damage can be undone. Try as she might. That is her job, after all.

On the wall, by the door in her office, is a hand-stitched sign: “Warning – social media may be hazardous to your health.”

The difference between talking with someone face-to-face and “talking” on-line is day and night. Light and dark. And yet, everything is on-line.

Can We Change?

Can we save ourselves from this road to hell? Stoll, again and again, emphasized the need and beauty of “In Real Life”. Very few have listened. He warns: “the big-time disasters creep up on us.” (p.174)

Recently, I watched a movie, The Day The Earth Stood Still (2008). It, too, tries to warn. Keanu Reeves, the alien, says to Jennifer Connelly, the scientist, “The problem is not technology. The problem is you. I cannot change your nature.” Jennifer pleads: “Please. We could change.”

Don’t kill us all, please.

Change is really, really hard. In the above movie another character tells Connelly that only when we are on the brink, at the precipice, will we alter course.

Hmmm. What do you think? Have you tried to change? Do you think we can change our nature?

In the movie, Reeves, the alien sent to save the planet by killing all the people, believes her. (Jennifer Connelly could convince me, too. Of anything.)


In Conclusion

I loved the book. Five stars. I love the Internet. But then, I’m retired and have nothing better to do than watch movies and shows all day long.

And eat, pray, love? Drink. Listen to music streamed on Spotify. Watch live sports. Podcasts, and introverted neurotic girls selling themselves, their “brand”, on YouTube.

After all, the brilliance that is the Internet gave me said movie, because I “like” Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly. The Internet brings me everything I want. Almost.

We have an upgrade problem.

Stoll concludes, “For all the promises of virtual communities, it’s more important to live a real life in a real neighborhood.” (p.235) I agree.

Post Script

Former president Barack Obama Two days after I wrote this piece.
“We’re a bunch of chimps.”

Sometimes things happen in ways so strange. It’s hard not to think there are forces at play we can barely image.

Only in dreams?

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