Media Circus: Let them eat nature

From his bucolic California garden, MSNBC's resident technophobe Clifford Stoll kindly instructs the technology-addicted masses on the error of their ways.

By Etelka Lehoczky
Published December 16, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

i'll be frank: it's the house. If Cliff Stoll didn't choose to speak from his Oakland, California home, with its fluffy rugs, interesting wall decorations and oh-so-sunny, oh-so-woodsy backyard, I'd be able to take his jejune little observations on the Internet and the world with a grain -- well, say a spoonful -- of salt.

Yeah, OK, so it's an unjust prejudice, and tainted with no small amount of jealousy to boot. If MSNBC's hip Internet show The Site asked me to provide amusing little commentaries on the state of the Net -- and from the hassle-free environment of my own home, no less -- I'd jump at the chance.

Or, at least, I think I would. Looking around as I write this, I find it all too easy to imagine the MSNBC people's reaction to my domicile-cum-window to the world. A crumpled Burger King bag -- doubtless containing the cold, subtly fragrant end of a three-day-old Whopper -- sits atop my computer monitor. All over my desk, milk-crusted glasses balance precariously on dog-eared piles of papers. And it isn't any better anywhere else in my tiny apartment, where drifts of spilled cat litter provide the only consistent decorating theme. Perhaps I could offer my opinions from the back alley, next to the row of trash cans and my neighbor's motorcycle. Or better yet, perhaps I could just do the normal thing: Put on some nice clothes, schlep down to the studio, and talk to the cameras there.

But Stoll, whose commentaries run near the end of every episode of the Site, doesn't have to do the normal thing. Unlike the rest of us overworked drones, forever resigned to dirty dishes and take-out because we're simply too busy to cook or clean, Stoll savors a flawlessly well-ordered existence. To all appearances, his little world is somehow free of the compromises we mortals take for granted. Though he's an astronomer by trade, as well as an author and professional Net-basher, these activities don't seem to interfere with his ability to enjoy nature, think Big Thoughts and vacuum every day.

That's why Stoll's so hard to take: We're being lectured on the horrors of the info glut by a smiley-eyed nature boy who seems completely innocent of them.

Yeah, I know, Stoll's a former Nethead himself; "Silicon Snake Oil," the book he published last year, is primarily a disavowal of his years of computer obsession. But he's still an innocent, albeit a re-made one.

In his airily pure-hearted approach to complicated ideas, Stoll radiates the forced simplicity of a religious convert. "I'm finding myself behind the keyboard less and less," he said the other day. "I'm finding myself just sort of saying I've got better things to do with my time ... I'd rather spend my mornings in the garden; I'd rather spend my afternoons with friends; I'd rather spend my days working." How noble! It doesn't even seem to occur to Stoll that for most of us, those first two options are pretty much out. We have to spend our days working.

For all his familiarity with computers, Stoll's view of their place in the world has all the good-vs.-evil simplicity of a born-again Christian's -- or a recovering alcoholic's. He opens "Snake Oil" with a lascivious description of his "addiction": "Fingers on the keyboard, I'm bathed in the cold glow of my cathode-ray tube ... I see my reflection in the screen and a chill runs down my spine ... I take a deep breath and pull the plug."

Of course, he doesn't really pull the plug. He admits that computers have some uses, and sometimes sits next to his own snazzy-looking machine for his Site spots. "I like e-mail," he admits grudgingly at one point. "E-mail's really handy for staying in touch with family, friends ... [and] other astronomers around the world." Thanks for letting us in on the secret, Cliff.

It would be one thing if Stoll's arguments were convincing. But he doesn't really have any arguments; he suggests ideas without bothering to back them up. Instead of reason he offers a repertoire of "cute" physical expressions: grimacing, gazing into space, and -- a favorite -- scratching his head to indicate puzzlement. Once you get past all this, though, you realize that everything he talks about -- from the economic impossibility of cheap, fast service for all to the question of whether communications will make governments obsolete -- has already been debated ad nauseam by a score of other commentators.

Stoll's on the right side of most of these debates -- who hasn't been annoyed by the airheaded optimism of Wired magazine and its ilk -- but you almost wish he weren't. At least the folks at Wired take time to think through their libertarian fantasies. Stoll's "discussion" of the "is government obsolete" issue consisted of him flapping his arms like a chicken -- literally -- to illustrate the difference between reality and dreamland. (See, in your dreams, you can actually fly; in real life you can merely look like an idiot on national television.)

But who's really living in dreamland here? The too-optimistic techno-libertarians? Or Stoll, wandering around his house flapping his wings? It's all the more amusing that Stoll's central theme should be the value of "real life" -- whatever that is -- over online interactions. As he writes in "Silicon Snake Oil," the Net "is an overpromoted, hollow world, devoid of warmth and human kindness ... No birds sing." In "real life," on the other hand, birds do sing, long walks are taken and aging, barely-coherent hippies are recruited by major networks to offer half-baked theories on the future of technology.

In other words, what Stoll calls reality is exactly what most of us would call, well, dreamland. But by situating himself as he has, Stoll doesn't even have to face up to the distinction. This opponent of telecommuting -- he says it destroys workplace community -- doesn't even have to make a regular commute to appear on television. For Stoll, putting in a day's work is a relatively simple affair. He just makes sure the living room is tidy, wanders out into the back yard, waits for his producers to set up the shot and flaps away.

EXTRA! The Return of the Son of Microserfs

Anyone contemplating a move to Seattle to work for, well, you know, might do well to peruse Bob Mack's Alice-in-Wonderland account of life "Inside the Hell of Gates" in the January Details. Mack, an engagingly embittered ex-employee (hired to edit the Gen-X e-zine Mint and fired after 11 weeks), reports that "working for Microsoft was like a combination of going back to grammar school, slaving for a fat-and-sassy corporation, and goldbricking at an even fatter, sassier government labyrinth -- a triple helix of tedium that manifested itself most obviously in a bureaucracy as byzantine as the bumbling hellfare state in Terry Gilliam's Brazil."

In the same issue: a horrifically embarassing fashion spread showing what the hip-to-be-squares at the MS campus are (allegedly) wearing.

Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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