Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut Revised and Updated Edition

Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut Revised and Updated Edition

4.6 30
by David Shenk
     
 

Media scholar ( and Internet Enthusiast ) David Shenk examines the troubling effects of information proliferation on our bodies, our brains, our relationships, and our culture, then offers strikingly down-to-earth insights for coping with the deluge.

With a skillful mixture of personal essay, firsthand reportage, and sharp analysis, Shenk illustrates the central

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Overview

Media scholar ( and Internet Enthusiast ) David Shenk examines the troubling effects of information proliferation on our bodies, our brains, our relationships, and our culture, then offers strikingly down-to-earth insights for coping with the deluge.

With a skillful mixture of personal essay, firsthand reportage, and sharp analysis, Shenk illustrates the central paradox of our time: as our world gets more complex, our responses to it become increasingly simplistic. He draws convincing links between data smog and stress distraction, indecision, cultural fragmentation, social vulgarity, and more.

But there's hope for a saner, more meaningful future, as Shenk offers a wealth of novel prescriptions—both personal and societal—for dispelling data smog.

Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
Shenk has written a concise, insightful and welcome critique of the communications world we have created.
Washington Post
Regardless of where you stand...[Data Smog makes] good reading. Read ...Shenk to find out how to make the best of [things]...
Boston Globe
Data Smog is the Silent Spring for the Digital Age.
Houston Chronicle
If you're looking for a survival guide for the information age, this is your book.
New York Post
A must-read for technophiles and neo-Luddites alike.
Toronto Globe and Mail
...[E]legant...a blessing...Shenk has dealt with his task with a suprising economy of prose and sharpness of wit.
Salon
A valuable book....If everyone who isn't yet online read Data Smog before joining America Online or getting Net access, their lives -- and the Net itself -- would have a much better shot at staying sane.
The Capital Times
This is a marvelous book.
Omni Magazine Online
Data Smog is a fascinating and important book...go and get yourself a copy. Unplug the phone, turn off the TV, and spend a few hours receiving data at a more human speed.
PC Magazine Online
Stunningly eloquent.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780062515513
Publisher:
HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
01/28/1998
Edition description:
REV
Pages:
256
Product dimensions:
5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.57(d)

Meet the Author

Read an Excerpt

Part One

Signal to Noise

"We have transformed information
into a form of garbage.
—Neil Postman

"In the information age, there can be too much exposure and too much information and too much sort of quasi-information. . . . There's adanger that too much stuff cramming in on people's minds is just as bad forthem as too little, in terms ofthe ability to understand, to comprehend.
—Bill Clinton

Chapter One

Spammed!

I opened the front door and unlocked the iron gate. A man came into my home bearing a prolific new machine, an appliance I mistook to be generous in much the same way that people frequently mistake credit cards for currency. It was the infancy of my career as a freelance writer, in Washington, D.C., and somewhere in my enthusiasm for the latest generation of electronic tools, I had gotten the old saw about knowledge and power turned around in my head: I was thinking that information was power. I now regard this as one of the great seductive myths of our time and do not feel so silly about falling prey to it; I think it happens to people all the time.

A friend had mentioned this affordable new electronic wire, the Federal News Service, which provided transcripts of key political and cultural events. I felt sure that it would give me a leg up. The pleasant man installed a small off-white printer on a plastic stand on the right rear corner of my desk. Below the stand, he plopped a box of several thousand sheets of perforated paper. He pushed a few buttons to run a test, wished me luck, and was off.

I already had a printer formy computer, of course; this second one stood on its own. It had an antenna in the back, with a small radio transceiver box. Every morning, the printer spat out a roster of the transcripts it had to offer. All the interviews from the morning talk shows, available moments after they had been broadcast.
All the major speeches from senators, ambassadors, and other Washington heavies. Absolutely every utterance from the White House. Then it started spitting out the transcripts themselves. A
sea of information. I felt plugged in. Without ever leaving my
bedroom/office, I felt I had arrived.

Every morning, it printed. And every afternoon. And every evening. And every morning again. In a week, I was running my own private recycling service.

Newsprint was a healthy part of the pile, too. I was reading three papers each morning, along with an abundance of periodicals. Without realizing it, I had at some point made an important (and quite common) strategic decision about how to live in a world that more and more resembles a library without walls, containing more information than one person could ever hope to process. I had decided to confront the rushing tide head on, to try to keep up with the new and speedy, and to more or less disregard the old and slow. I read my newspapers and magazines, my e-mail and my wire services; I watched Cable News Network; I stopped spending time with books and other cumbersome material that felt more like yesterday.

I also listened to talk radio, which is quite good in Washington. One morning on The Diane Rehm Show, I heard Diane ask Lewis Lapham, editor of Harper's magazine, about the fantastic proliferation of magazines. It seems you could do nothing but read magazines all day and still not get to all of them, Diane said at one point. Lewis agreed.

That's weird, I thought. They're talking about me.

At the forefront of the new was my all-too-reliable Federal News Service printer. Somewhere along the line, that empowering eagle became an albatross. One day, it was so much; the next, too much.
-Uhms and -uhrs, disjointed thoughts, facile questions, and dodgy responses poured into my room morning, noon, and night. Trumped-up charges, non-denial denials, diplomatic rumbles—an entire political universe in dot matrix. The machine also had an unspoken appeal: keep up. No one else was around to obey, so it fell to me. The machine expected me to be its equal. It could print two pages a minute—why couldn't I read two pages a minute? Why couldn't I write two pages a minute?

The printer had just gone through a dozen transcripts. Was I still working on that same paragraph?

In a month or so, I pulled the plug. The nice man came back and carted the machine away. I locked the gate behind him.

Some years later, in a classroom at Columbia University, I attended a small guest lecture given by Brian Lamb, the founder, chairman, and sometime anchor of C-SPAN, the public-service cable channel that broadcasts congressional debates and other government minutiae. At this talk, Lamb did the most preposterous thing.

He refused to defend the information revolution.

His strange reluctance did not show right away. For an hour or so, Lamb spoke confidently on the history of C-SPAN and why he believed it to be a vital public service. He recalled some of his favorite on-air anecdotes and off-air clashes with important public officials. He boasted of his plans to introduce the new cable channels C-SPAN3, C-SPAN4, and C-SPAN5. After he had finished, his host, Professor Eli Noam, a leading thinker on how information flow affects society, concluded the session by asking Lamb a simple but shocking question. "Is more information necessarily good? Does it really improve the political process?"

En-garde. Noam had questioned Lamb's reason for being. He might as well have slapped him in the face with a white glove and challenged him to a duel. But even more surprising was that Lamb did not spring to the defense of the information revolution, or even the full-access cable channel phenomenon that he had pioneered. Instead, he suddenly and inexplicably surrendered.

"I haven't got a clue as to whether it's good or bad," Lamb replied. "But you can't stop this process. It's the American way. Which part of the library or the Internet do you want to shut down? Let me tell you something: If we can't survive all the information that we're going to develop, then we're in real trouble. Because no one is going to stop writing books. No one is going to stop creating information."

How odd those words sounded, coming out of that mouth. Lamb's downcast portrayal of information as an unstoppable steamroller was a complete about-face from his previously boosterish speech about the virtues of the twenty-four-hour government information channel. But I enjoyed the turnaround immensely, because it suddenly revealed Lamb as a much more interesting character than he had earlier seemed—someone who, on one level, at least, grasps the increasingly complex nature of the relationship between human beings and information technology: We thrive on the information, and yet we can also choke on it.

This paradox was something I was still struggling to understand myself. With my fax machine, laptop, and Internet account, I had been lapping up the information revolution as enthusiastically as anyone. I had been training for it, in fact, for most of my life, always fascinated with Radio Shack electronics kits and Casio calculator watches, always believing the next great piece of machinery would take me somewhere new. As a high school sophomore, I spent hours painstakingly writing BASIC computer language to make a green line move from the top of the screen to the bottom on my Apple II Plus (if a$ = "yes" then goto line 20), and back again.

No one within my earshot ever challenged the notion that technology equals progress, so that is what I continued to believe through high school and into my freshman year in college. That year, 1984, I bought one of first generation of Apple Macintosh computers. By the time I graduated, nearly everyone on campus seemed to own one, along with another electronic device that was radically changing the way we communicate: the answering machine.

There were faint whiffs of trouble in the air, but I didn't pick up on them. I can vaguely recall a phone conversation with a college girlfriend shortly after graduation, in which she complained about her office fax machine, yet another appliance sweeping the nation. It wasn't that her fax didn't work, but rather that it was working too well. Because it transmitted information across the country and world so quickly, she said, it had actually altered the expectations of work time, becoming a kind of taskmaster that insisted on faster and faster work.

Around this same time, when I was just getting into the journalism business, I got a chance to interview the novelist and social critic Kurt Vonnegut. You can imagine how petrified I was. Just as we sat down to talk in the eat-in kitchen of his midtown Manhattan apartment, my tape recorder died. So much for rechargeable batteries.

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