High Tech Heretic
Author: Clifford Stoll
Price: $24.95 US
Author: Neal Stephenson
Publisher: Avon Books
Reviewer: James Paul Holloway
Those with high-tech products to sell, no matter if their vision is cynical or genuine, are able to exercise a tremendous influence over our society. They have convinced us that broken software is to be expected, and a fix will be out soon; that a new computer every few years is necessary; and that children need to use computers practically from infancy. And their influence is not limited to consumer-users. Because of the conventional wisdom that “high-tech” is responsible for the current economic boom, they also have a strong influence on political, educational and legal figures, for example, selling the notion that copyright of software is a special legal form requiring special criminal provisions not previously needed, or pushing for the adoption of multimedia-based educational tools of uncertain educational value.
It is therefore becoming increasingly important to consciously debate and consciously control the effect of computing on culture. Fortunately, there is a growing literature of computer contrarian books that argue against the conventional wisdom of computer software design and deployment. The literature I am writing of is not about software engineering, but rather the purposes to which software is put and the way it is developed for human use. Still, it is amazing that none of these books are written by the key open-source players. Perhaps the open-source activists are too busy building the tools of the revolution to worry about how those tools are being used.
Two recent examples of computer contrarian books are High Tech Heretic by Clifford Stoll and In the Beginning Was the Command Line by Neal Stephenson. These are notable because they were both written by experienced authors who love and are experienced in computing, and whose previous successes in techno-book writing has made them somewhat famous among members of the hacker community. Both authors set out to challenge dominant ideas in our current culture of computing, using dramatic images and emotional rhetoric rather than through a data-driven discussion.
In High Tech Heretic, Stoll argues against the whole notion of ubiquitous computing, against the idea that computers not only can but should cause fundamental changes in the way we do everything. The misguided deployment of computers and Internet connections in schools earn his special ire, as these technologies may displace other important and effective educational practices, and they certainly displace a significant budget that might be better spent on teachers. Stoll writes by telling stories, creating visions of creative, messy, hands-on education being displaced by sterile virtual busywork. Each of his stories is designed to invoke a headshake of empathy—the tale of the small boy whose imperfect, but unique and original paper model is ignored by adults who are agog over a child-created display of clipart. The overall result is compelling.
The reader is left seriously wondering whether all these invasions of computing make sense. Is computing, especially the simple use of computer software, really more important than art in developing a growing intellect? Is word processing honestly an academic subject worth serious school time? Does Powerpoint really make a boring talk less dull? Does it even make an interesting talk better? Stoll strives for an apparently simple, common-sense view, so that his readers will consider the broad issue, even if they disagree with his particulars.