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The Techno Traitor : Author Cliff Stoll is no technophobe. But the former hero of the hyper-hip is sounding the warning about cyberspace. It's just no substitute for real life, he says.

March 27, 1995|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OAKLAND — It's hard to imagine a more reluctant traitor to the techno-revolution than Cliff Stoll. You can almost see the lobes of his brain wrestling as he ponders the concerns that turned him against the cause.

In 1987, the astrophysicist used his scientific sleuthing skills and a bit of programming wizardry to track down German spies who had hacked and cracked their way into sensitive computer systems via the budding Internet.

Stoll's best-selling account of that affair, "The Cuckoo's Egg" (Doubleday, 1989), earned him a rare measure of respect from the hyper-hip Wired set, and is still passed among admiring nerds.

But as word of Stoll's new book leaks out on World Wide Web sites and news groups, the response is less than electric. In fact, he's getting flamed.

At the very moment the mainstream media are finally embracing digitization--and spouting enough cyber-babble each week to swamp a 10-gigabyte hard drive--Stoll is having second thoughts.

To understand what has happened to him, to understand his "deep ambivalence" toward the revolution he helped fuel, an e-mail interview just won't do.

To understand why his next addition to bookstores' suddenly overflowing "Cyber" section is titled "Silicon Snake Oil--Second Thoughts on the Information Highway" (Doubleday, 1995), it's important to hang out with this guy in real time, in the non-digitized here and now.

Stoll lives in a 1917 blue-and-yellow Craftsman-style house with his sweetheart, Pat, a coroner's pathologist, and their 5-month-old daughter, Zoe.

He doesn't own a car and the 1956 RCA television set in the living room doesn't work. But bmany of the classic, wood-cased radios he collects and refurbishes do.

With old redwood paneling and bookshelves, and ancient faded wallpaper, the house could be a museum to old technology. Stoll points out several telegraph keys that he restored. Then something else catches his eye.

"Look! Look at this!" he yelps, his circuits abruptly shorted by exuberance.

Just outside the front window, two connected coffee cans hang over a rain-soaked lemon tree like an ill-conceived birdhouse. Talking at the approximate speed of a wayward atom in a particle accelerator, Stoll explains:

"I was looking out the window when I saw a 12-year-old neighbor across the street, and she was crying because a dog had been hit by a car."

Cars, it seems, were always zooming down this quiet, ash and maple-shaded street. But community pleas to the City Council got nowhere. "I figured it would be a cool thing to measure the speed of the cars as they go by. So I built this microwave oscillator."

The coffee cans, Stoll says, are a one-gigahertz antenna that "squirts radar beams out at the street." "See!" he says, hoisting up a jury-rigged digital display by the window: "22 m.p.h. . . . 27 m.p.h. . . ."

Stoll heads into a rear bedroom containing a crib, a computer built into an old wooden desk, and two VDTs whose screens he has covered with blue Magic Marker messages.

The homemade radar gun is linked by interface to his Mac, Stoll says. Digging through stacks of paper, he pulls out several computer-generated graphs dense with information about the street's traffic.

The city got a look at them, Stoll says, grinning, and coughed up two new speed bumps.

Cuckoo! Cuckoo! Cuckoo!

"Oh, oh! Did you park out front?" Stoll blurts, glancing at the computer screen from which a little cuckoo icon squawks a warning that it's the second Tuesday of the month and Oakland's meter readers are on the prowl.

Stoll steps onto the porch of his old house at the moment his next-door neighbor steps out of hers clutching a child. The scent of new blossoms cuts through the gloom of a rainy East Bay day. Stoll bounds to a white-picket fence and leans over. He asks about his neighbor's sick dog. She says it's leukemia. His forehead furrows. He speaks soothing words. The neighbor's eyes tear. She smiles.

Moments later, as Stoll strides down the sidewalk in his beltless beige corduroy pants (torn) and blue cord shirt (torn), he finally lands squarely on the topic at hand.

"One of the problems of technology is that people think it's a substitute for real life," he says. "I don't have to deal with my neighbor when I can log onto the Internet for two hours a night.

"Virtual community? I no longer believe it. It's a weak substitute, an ersatz community. I'm beginning to think seriously that there are people who really would prefer to talk to a machine than a human. But this is not a society I want my Zoe to grow up in."

Stoll, 44, is quick to admit that his anxiety is not original. Luddites were crying wolf about technology long before Aldous Huxley envisioned a "Brave New World."

But Stoll is no technophobe. He tapped out Morse code messages on a home-built ham radio back in 1964. He cobbled together his first computer in 1976, and connected to the Internet's antecedent, the Arpanet, shortly thereafter.

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