Stoll, Clifford. Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. New York: Doubleday, 1995.

The Oxford English Dictionary defined "snake oil" as "a quack remedy or panacea." Stoll's main argument is that many zealous proponents of communications and educational technologies are trying to sell us a silicon version of that old quack remedy. Stoll is actually a big fan and very experienced user of computers (widely known for his work and writing on computer security), but he is concerned that are often being pushed into situations for which they are not appropriate based on inflated claims and unrealistic expectations.

"Computers themselves don't bother me; I'm vexed by the culture in which they're enshrined."

Stoll states his "strong reservations about the wave of computer networks. They isolate us from one another and cheapen the meaning of actual experience. They work against literacy and creativity. They undercut our schools and libraries." According to Stoll, they can also be frustrating, prone to obsolescence and cost more than their purchasers can really afford.


As long as this book is taken for what it is a free-wheeling personal essay meant to counter-balance the overzealous treatment of ICTs in the popular media then it can provide some powerful insights and entertaining tirades. Stoll freely admits to "purposely viewing only the worrisome and distasteful parts" of the new technologies, but one thing that can make this book interesting to a mass audience is also something of a liability: its extremely broad scope. Stoll touches on a huge number of issues, often reading more like a laundry list of pet peeves than a well-structured treatise. It is also important to remember that Stoll was writing when the Web was still quite new, and many educated readers were still not very aware of the general social issues associated with the Internet. In short, this book is an important installment in the genre of technological skepticism and raises many important issues, but anyone interested in a rigorous and timely analysis of ICTs should look elsewhere.

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