A Clifford Tangent

My post on Cliffort Stoll’s book, Cuckoo’s Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, started me off on a “Clifford” tangent. I realized that three Cliffords, all related, in my mind at least, to reading, books, early literacy, the Internet, Red stuff (yes, the KGB was paying the hackers Stoll tracked) and libraries, are worth writing about.

The first Clifford of course is Stoll who went on after Cuckoo’s Egg to write cautionary tales about over dependence on technology including Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway. Doing something else just now reading about scholarly publishing in the Journal of Electronic Publishing, I fell upon the “Editor’s Gloss: Silicon Snake Oil and Branding” the editor refers to Stoll’s point of view when she explores digital publishing worries from the 1990’s.  How publishing has changed since 1997!

Stoll was labeled as a Luddite and, while he was certainly not on the mark about any/all publishing quality and the web, it’s easy to find others who share his anxieties about how digital life is re-ordering our lives. Much has been written about how invasive digital technologies are with special worry directed towards parents who wily nily assume that a computer is a benign teacher for children even under one year of age. Jane Healy’s 1999 book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds – And What We Can Do About It and many since are a kind of second wave to the “too much TV” anxieties. Another of Stoll’s projects is a 1990 PBS Nova*, “The KGB, the Computer and Me,” a TV production for children described as “astronomer-turned computer scientist, Clifford Stoll traced a 75-cent error to an international computer espionage ring by using the scientific method.”

The second Clifford in my trinity is Clifford Lynch, for years a visionary and frequent keynote speaker at library and technology conferences, such as TED.  He has worked on digital library development and now is focusing on the future of scholarly publishing. Digital curation, institutional repositories, and open access advocacy are a part of his portfolio.

In position number three but surely number one for young readers around the world is Clifford, the Big Red Dog.   Anyone who knows kids books knows about the sweet canine, Clifford, the disarming hero of many books by Norman Birdwell. Clifford, the Big Red Dog, has had 97 editions published between 1963 and 2010 in 14 languages and held by 3,250 libraries worldwide but when I look up Clifford in WorldCat the most owned “Cliffords” in libraries in the top four positions are DVD’s. (WorldCat search results rank by relevance and number of libraries worldwide that own a particular item.) Gee, I sure hope kids still get to be read to, cuddling or at least close to another human being, delighting in Clifford’s adventures.  Just watching the TV broadcast or video or visiting the web site is fun, of course but not enough. Time spent on reading by children is down.  How can one be a citizen of the knowledge society without very strong reading comprehension and writing skills?

– JJ

*I noticed that according to WorldCat, a research library at the Aberdeen Proving Ground (Maryland) owns a copy of the VHS of that Nova Stoll helped to make. APG is where my dad worked. Back in the late 1960’s my dad, a big picture kind of guy and a Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering graduate, would talk about the Arpanet. He marveled about computers talking to each other, data flowing between research centers, accelerating the process of testing and design.


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