Runcible Blog

my favorite contrarian

I read all of Cliff Stoll's books 8 years ago, and I often channel his contrarianism about social networking, computers in education, and even my own choice of current occupation. He's influenced my life; it's a shame that his passionate questioning 10 years ago has faded into irrelevance, steamrolled by the billion dollar drive to get everyone connected and clicking away. With the impending failure of the OLPC, I wonder if anyone will take the opportunity to think about whether the number of man-hours spent producing green plastic doorstops for impoverished Peruvians could've been better spent thinking about ways to cure malaria or simply training more teachers to work in remote villages. I don't know.

In this hour-long presentation from 1996, Stoll raises important questions about computers in society, in his own frenetic style. Throughout, he maintains that he loves computers and the internet, but he wants people to question the assumption that computers and networks change everything for the better. What happened to the folks who said that the transistor radio would replace teachers and textbooks? Or televisions in classrooms? Or CD-ROMs? (yeesh!)

I particularly liked his comparison of the information superhighway to the interstate highway system built in the 50's. Back then, he said, the interstate highway was sold as something to make the country stronger, bring people together, spur jobs, growth, and cheap goods through easy transportation. All of those things came true, but at what cost? Whether it's the dissolution of communities due to suburban alienation, a looming ecological disaster from a polluting car-culture, or dependence on foreign oil which drags the country into perpetual resource-wars and economic ruin, maybe it would've been worth questioning the costs of that new infrastructure at the time. Similarly, why not question the effects that computers will have on our society? Lots of people have (here's a recent Frontline episode), but Cliff Stoll is a unique contrarian -- a pioneer of the internet and admitted "propellerhead" who thinks that maybe we should take a step back before trashing art class for Microsoft Word and bowling with friends for chatting online.

On a personal note, I think about what kind of value I'm producing in my job as Software Designer Level IV for a Fortune 11 company. There are so many stories to tell. Valuable stories that could make a difference. In comparison, what is the value of another multi-threaded webserver or a faster website for buying souvenirs? Well...