SCIENTIST Clifford Stoll, who gained fame as a tracker of...

GALLIMAUFRY

June 10, 1995

SCIENTIST Clifford Stoll, who gained fame as a tracker of international computer spies, offers some ominous warnings about the computer age faith and its technocratic promise of a better life along the information highway.

The repentant ex-cybernaut now preaches that the computer can enslave and debase learning, rather than liberating and expanding the knowledge data base. In his new book, "Silicon Snake Oil," he praises the methods and media of traditional learning and thinking.

"Simply by turning to a computer when confronted with a problem, you limit your ability to recognize other solutions," Mr. Stoll warns. Yet that is the road increasingly most traveled, through access to the Internet and a world of supposedly valuable hyperlinked information.

Computer network conversations don't do much for personality development, either. "You lead a much shallower life on-line than you do in the real world," he pontificates.

Traditional sources of knowledge are being displaced by libraries racing to expand computer data bases, yet the result will likely be more limited information. As reference works and card catalogs give way to computers, the only information available will be what is on-line.

Computers tear apart conventional books for their smallest piece, or bytes, of data that are presented without context, he notes. "Data isn't information any more than 50 tons of cement is a skyscraper" -- an apt coda in this digital age.

Computer programs that promise to make education more accessible to children end up doing them a great disservice, he complains. Once exposed to these entertaining programs, children will shy from real learning. Learning isn't necessarily fun, it's hard work.

School systems and libraries would, in short, make better use of resources by concentrating on books and teachers rather than on computers and worldwide networks, he advises. The same goes for the well-intentioned parent coaxing junior to focus on the latest CD-ROM edu-tainment product.

Mr. Stoll, an astronomer who chronicled his trackdown of international computer data thieves in the 1989 book "The Cuckoo's Egg" and helped popularize the Internet, now makes his living as a computer security consultant. He's a savvy iconoclastic traveler of the information highway, whose warning signs warrant heeding.

And, yes, to make sure he reaches his target audience, Mr. Stoll's reborn philosophy is conveyed through the old-fashioned printed book, not in a "readme.txt" computer file.

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HAS IT been 200 years already? The appointment of local businessman Tom Koch to chair the Baltimore Bicentennial Celebration means the event is almost here. Baltimore was incorporated in 1797. The bicentennial is less than two years away.

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