Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut

Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut

by David Shenk, Shenk


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Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut by David Shenk, Shenk

Cyberpundit And Media Scholar David Shenk Launches A Trenchant And Informed Critique Of The Impact Of Data Smog -- Information Overload -- On Individual Well-Being And Our Society As A Whole. Picking Up Where Silicon Snake Oil And The Gutenberg Elegies Left Off, Shenk Skillfully Explodes The Rosy Myths Of The Technological Revolution, Points The Way Toward A Saner And More Meaningful Future, And Offers The Most Convincing And Thorough Rebuttal Yet Of The Overhyping Of The Information Age.

More Praise For Data Smog:

"Over The Past 150 Years, Humanity Solved The Problem Of Information Scarcity. In Solving It, We Created The Problem Of Information Glut, Incoherence And Meaninglessness. David Shenk'S Brilliant Book Names The Problem, Describes It, Explains It And -- God Bless Him -- Offers Us Help In Coping With It."

- Neil Postman, Author, Technopoly And Amusing Ourselves To Death

"This Could Be The Silent Spring For The Digital Age. Data Smog Shows The Very Real Threats That We Now Face. We Ignore Them At Our Peril."

- Simson Garfinkel, Columnist, Hotwired

"Data Smog Is Quite Wonderful...A Smart Warning By A Savvy Aficionado Of Cyber-Culture To Be Wary Of Too Much Of A Good Thing."

- Orville Schell, Dean, Graduate School Of Journalism, University Of California At Berkeley

"This Book Breaks New Ground. Here You Will Find A Public Ethic For An Era Of Too-Much Information, Delivered In A Succinct And Heroically Civil Style That Puts To Shame An Entire Shelf Of Books On The Coming Media Environment. Shenk Is A Citizen Writing For Other Beleaguered Citizens...Data Smog Is Really A Book About Democracy And What It Will Take To Keep That Troubled Idea Alive And Breathing In Years Ahead."

- Jay Rosen, Director, Project On Public Life And The Press, New York University

"This Book Is An Oxygen Mask. Take It Along When You Need To Breathe. This Careful, Informed And Passionate Argument Should Take The Stuffing Right Out Of The Cheerleaders Of The (Indiscriminate) Information Age."

- Andrei Codrescu, Commentator, National Public Radio

"Data Smog Offers A Rare Combination Of Extensive Research, Clear Thinking, Lucid Writing And Valuable Advice. It'S A Must For Anybody Feeling Overwhelmed But Underserved By Today'S Information Sources."

- Edward Tenner, Author, Why Things Bite Back

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060187019
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/21/1997
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.42(w) x 9.58(h) x 0.91(d)

About the Author

David Shenk, a former Freedom Forum fellow, has written for Wired, Harper's, The New Republic, the New York Times and the Washington Post, and is a commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered."

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


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.

Table of Contents

The Laws of Data Smog 11(4)
Preface 15(2)
PART 1 Signal to Noise 17(60)
1. Spammed!
2. The Black Shakes
3. Skeptical in Seattle
4. "A New Generation of Geniuses"
PART 2 Virtual Anarchy 77(62)
5. The Thunderbird Problem
6. Paralysis by Analysis
7. Stat Wars
8. The Two-by-Four Effect
9. Village of Babel
10. A Nation of Lonely Molecules
11. Superdemocracy
PART 3 A New Order 139(40)
12. Creatures from the Info Lagoon
13. Dataveillance
14. Anecdotage
15. The End of Journalism?
16. March of the Cyber-Republicans
PART 4 A Return to Meaning 179(36)
17. What Then Must Be Done?
18. Be Your Own Filter
19. Be Your Own Editor
20. Simplify
21. De-nichify
22. Don't Forsake Government; Help Improve It
Acknowledgments 215(2)
Appendix: How to get off Junk Mail/Phone lists 217(2)
Sources and Notes 219

What People are Saying About This

Jay Rosen

This book breaks new ground. Here you will find a public ethic for an era of too-much information, delivered in a succinct and heroically civil style that puts to shame an entire shelf of books on the coming media environment. Shenk is a citizen writing for other beleaguered citizens...Data Smog is really a book about democracy and what it will take to keep that troubled idea alive and breathing in years ahead. -- (Jay Rosen, Director, Project on Public Life and the Press, New York University)

Neil Postman

Over the past 150 years, humanity solved the problem of information scarcity. In solving it, we created the problem of information glut, incoherence and meaninglessness. David Shenk's brilliant book names the problem, describes it, explains it and-God bless him-offers us help in coping with it. -- (Neil Postman, author, Technopoly and Amusing Ourselves to Death)

Arthur Tenner

Data Smog offers a rare combination of extensive research, clear thinking, lucid writing, and valuable advice. It's a must for anybody feeling overwhelmed but underserved by today's information sources. -- Edward Tenner, author, Why Things Bite Back)

Douglas Rushkoff

David Shenk forced me to re-evaluate my longstanding faith in the intrinsic benefits of networking technology. A whole lot of us are crying out for more when we might be better saying enough.

Andrei Codrescu

This book is an oxygen mask. Take it along when you need to breathe. This careful, informed, and passionate argument should take the stuffing right out of the cheerleaders of the (indiscriminate) Information Age. -- (Andrei Codrescu, commentator, National Public Radio)

Orville Schell

Data Smog is quite wonderful...a smart warning by a savvy aficionado of cyber-culture to be wary of too much of a good thing. -- (Orville Schell, Dean, Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley)

Roger Rosenblatt

David Shenk has written a brilliant confirmation of the fact that information is neither knowledge nor wisdom, and that too much data can dull the mind. One should read this splendid book very soon, while the mind is still intact.

Jack Powers

[An] informed critique of the media technology revolution...Shenk['s] book is a good counterpoint to [Bill] Gates' techno-utopianism. - (Jack Powers, NYU)


On Tuesday, May 20, welcomed David Shenk, author of DATA SMOG.

Moderator: David Shenk, author of DATA SMOG, is here to answer your questions about his new book. Welcome, Mr. David Shenk!

David Shenk: Hello, and I am eager to hear your questions.

Sarah from Schenectady: What's your opinion of the Kasparov vs. Big Blue, man vs. machine debate? Do you think that the results of these games have any great implications for our future?

David Shenk: No I don't. It has been entertaining, but unfortunately a little bit distracting from the real issues of how computers are affecting mankind.

Richard L. from Santa Fe: What are some practical steps people can take not to suffer this information overload. Do you advocate taking a day off from receiving any news, e-mail, phone calls, etc, sort of along the lines of Dr. Andrew Weil's suggestions?

David Shenk: Absolutely. I think we all need to be responsible news-consumers, but we also have to be careful about being too plugged in. So I would definitely advocate stepping back from the 'instant news' culture frequently, and spending time with slower, more meaningful means of information, ie. books, magazines, conversations and the like.

Greg from Columbus: What do you see as the main benefit brought to us by the advance of technology and the computer age?

David Shenk: It would be difficult to pick just one, there are so many wonderful things happening because of computers. I think we are healthier, wealthier, wiser, and safer because of computers, and I think life is richer.

Mark from NYC: Do you have a lot of friends who you now find yourself e-mailing, voice mailing, or messaging in some other way besides direct contact? How do you feel about that? Frank Rich touched upon this.

David Shenk: Yes, and I think that as with all of technology, there are great pluses and minuses. On the one hand, it is so amazing to be able to exchange e-mail so quickly and cheaply with friends all over the planet. On the other hand, it does tend to promote physical isolation, which one needs to be careful about.

Jim34 from TX: I've been in touch with more friends and relatives since I've been hooked up to the Internet than ever before! Can you really deny the unifying effect of technology?

David Shenk: You are absolutely right, but -- and we don't have time to get into too much complexity here -- you have to realize that as we come together in this global village, we also are forced to narrow our interests and specialize, so there is a paradoxical effect of electronic communication -- it unifies us and it splits us apart.

Clare W. from Chicago: Frank McCourt says the reason he is able to remember so much of his childhood is because he was never overwhelmed with information. D you think this glut of information will affect our memory? How will we filter what's important?

David Shenk: Great question. I hadn't heard that Frank McCourt comment, but I think that he is absolutely right, and I go into some detail about this in my book. Generally speaking, information and stimulus overload does threaten the integrity of our memories.

Curt from LA: I've really enjoyed your book - it really hit home. What do you do to relax and get away from the 'glut,' are you reading any good fiction?

David Shenk: One thing I do is get away from it all. I'm writing now from a beach house in Delaware. I also love to read non-fiction lit like John McPhee, and David Sedaris.

Penny from Knoxville, TN: I heard somewhere that the information you get from one issue of The New York Times is more information than someone from the mid-1800s learned during their entire life. How does the information we are getting now compare to what people learned in past centuries (or even decades)?

David Shenk: That is a great image, and I think our information now is better, and worse. It's vastly cheaper, quicker, and often more helpful, but there is the problem of overabundance. Too much can be overwhelming, and can rob us of meaning.

Brian from Coolville: What do you think of free personal news services on the WWW, like MyYahoo?

David Shenk: I think that they are potentially rewarding, but also potentially dangerous. Here the danger they can help us customize our information so well, that we filter out things that we might have loved to run into. Also, there is a serious social problem with people only sharing information with those that they are most alike.

Clark Harnes from Oakland: Do you see the advent of the Computer Age and our use of e-mail having an impact on our language? Because we write more than speak in communicating, will our language change?

David Shenk: Sure. Every change in culture impacts our language in some way. But, be careful in assuming that the current text-based Internet is permanent. I'm afraid that audio and video will soon replace much of what we now know as e-mail.

Funman from Hoboken: Can you name one or two major positive and negative effects you see the World Wide Web having on society?

David Shenk: Positive More people's voices can now be heard. Also, it is easier and cheaper to be in touch with people who share your very specific interests. It also takes people away from TV!
Negative? Okay I'm afraid that people, and especially children, will get caught up in the electronic adventure and get distracted from the real purpose of information, which is turning it into knowledge. Another negative effect is that at least for right now, it is impossible to tell whether most of the information out there is reliable, or even if it is coming from where it purports to be coming from.

Chris P.L. MacGregor from Texas: What do you see as the best ways to market yourself for jobs/profit in the new information economy?

David Shenk: Let me just say I'm really not an expert in that, but I'll just point out one thing ours has become a niche economy, the more specialized your skill, the more marketable you are.

Elisa from Salt Lake City: Do you think we will see an effect of the information glut in the next election?

David Shenk: Sure, in many different ways. To choose just one, politics has become a game of what Michael Kinsley has called 'stat wars.' I should explain that stats are so cheap and easy to manipulate, that politicians can always bolster their arguments with impressive facts.

Michael from Boston: What do you think about the current state of mass marketing? Are we all zombies of Proctor and Gamble or do we the consumer decide what we get via supply and demand?

David Shenk: Let me say the problem isn't so much mass-marketing anymore -- the new problem is niche marketing, where companies can target customers so efficiently it's scary.

Julia from NJ: Do you think that this chat is contributing to the overload that your book describes?

David Shenk: Well, sure in a way, but, my book doesn't so much single out certain types of information as the problems as it does point out that we are in a paradoxical culture wherein information can be helpful and hurtful.

Mitch from Hartford, Ct: What's your opinion of the trend of telecommuting? Do you think that if more people are working from home that it might actually result in a stronger family life?

David Shenk: It certainly has helped my family life! I love it! It does have its drawbacks, of course, and one needs to work harder to separate 'life' from 'work', or vice versa. Also, let's remember that one can be overloaded with information in virtually any setting.

The Man from Kalamazoo: It has been said that the Internet will take us further toward having a truly global economy and possibly begin blurring the difference between cultures from across the world like we have never seen before . . . Do you agree?

David Shenk: Yes, definitely, but that's not to say that we're going to have one global culture. Rather, boundaries of culture will be redrawn along lines of special interests rather than geography.

Colleen from Humboldt: I agree with your argument that computers are not necessarily the best teaching tool. I would always prefer that classes be taught by teachers, but isn't it essential to have computers in the classrooms so that the next generation will be able to function proficiently in the business world?

David Shenk: I don't think so. At a certain late point in one's education, sure, a little computer training is worthwhile for vocational reasons. But the vast majority of our education should be, MUST be, learning how to think critically, organize our thoughts, and learning 'how to learn.' Computers can help us access information, but education is only partly about access. It's mostly about converting information to knowledge.

Bill from Oregon: Do you think there will be a computer age backlash? Maybe a resurgence of paper?

David Shenk: You don't have to worry about paper going out of style, it is flourishing. Which is something I go into more detail in my book. I hope there won't be an irrational backlash, but I do hope we can have a more rational conversation about what computers can do for us -- a conversation very different from the one that MCI or Microsoft would encourage us to have.

Knapper from Downtown.: I recently read an article that stated, journalists can no longer just write the facts, do you agree with this? Have journalists ever written just the facts?

David Shenk: I think I know what you're saying, and I agree with you, as in there has never been any such thing as 'objective journalism.' I think journalists should be fair, and also be up front about their opinions.

Bob@CottageMicro.Com from Texas: Is there a review, summary, or description of your book on line ?

David Shenk: Yes, there is one here at, there's one at, there is more info at -- and do a search for DATA SMOG at one of the search engines, you'll find plenty.

Craig from MarylandU: Will people really be getting sick from too much time spent in front of the computer? Can you describe some symptoms?

David Shenk: I think people will, I think people already are. The computer-expert friend of mine thinks that there will be a whole branch of psychology to deal with information-age maladies. Having said that, I think that everyone deals with this stuff differently. There's no one thing called "information overload syndrome," and there never will be. I would watch out for basic symptoms of stress. We all know what those are.

Amy from San Francisco: I think that in addition to an excess of information that can't be processed into knowledge, the computer freezes our sensory skills . . . meaning that we forget how to interact with other human beings and nature. People that sit in front of computers all day seem to be lacking a socialized manner. Do you think that people with a tendancy to be antisocial are drawn to computer-related jobs, or that the jobs make the people more and more antisocial?

David Shenk: You've put that very well, and I think the answer is both. It is something we need to watch out for, whether or not we are predisposed to that problem.

Frank from Boston: I just graduated from College and will begin work for a large corporation this fall -- what will I be missing out on in the work place as a result of the information glut?

David Shenk: Well, first let me reiterate that there will likely be many good things about information technology. But, I would be careful to not get too stressed out by the speed and volume of information, not let the never-ending amount of data keep you in the office all night long, and not to take the cell phone and the pager wherever you go. It is important to leave it behind sometimes.

Phil from Washington: What do you hope to accomplish with your book? Do think this information glut will subside, or become less congested?

David Shenk: I don't think the problem of information glut will magically go away. What I hope to accomplish is to spur people to think about the ups and downs of information technology, and to talk about it more than we have been talking about it so far. Most of these tools can be wonderful in our lives, but we need to proceed with caution.

Moderator: Thanks so much for joining us tonight Mr. Shenk! I for one am eager to turn off this computer and go home! Thanks as well to all our guests -- be sure to order your copy of DATA SMOG! We'll see you back here in one hour with Raymond Benson, author of ZERO MINUS TEN!

David Shenk: Thank you for the very thoughtful questions. If you read my book, please e-mail me telling me what you think of it. (The address is in the book.)

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