Part One of Two
David Shenk worries that the human race faces a crisis, an ecological
crisis of the Information Age. Formless, nonphysical toxins pose a unique danger to the ecologies of information that we have created.
These toxins are the evanescent particles of data produced by our wired
world, bits of information that fill our lives, occluding our days and
nights under a perpetual haze of data smog. Electric Minds excerpts "Data Smog," David Shenk's new book, in Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow.
In our conversation, Shenk and I grapple with the prognosis. Are the information technologies we've created producing an extraordinary amount of toxic noise, a fetid soup of haphazard information, which we frantically sift through, day by day, relentlessly falling behind as the email messages become junk-mail messages and the satellites overhead beam more television stations, and these 500-channels seem puny when faced with the million-channel dial of
the web? Did that sentence make you tense? Are you falling behind? Have
you read your email today? Did you just get more? Have you read this
In our conversation, Shenk and I grapple with the prognosis. Are the information technologies we've created producing an extraordinary amount of toxic noise, a fetid soup of haphazard information, which we frantically sift through, day by day, relentlessly falling behind as the email messages become junk-mail messages and the satellites overhead beam more television stations, and these 500-channels seem puny when faced with the million-channel dial of the web? Did that sentence make you tense? Are you falling behind? Have you read your email today? Did you just get more? Have you read this interview yet?
David Bennahum: I'm curious how you got into computers, seduced by them, what the original attraction was. You mentioned owning an Apple computer as a kid.
David Shenk: My experience with computers is that the way we get into them corresponds to how old we are. I was a freshman in college in the fall of '84; the Mac was just coming out, and Steve Jobs had done this amazing PR. Now that I know some of the history of the Mac, I know that the PR was better than the computer; they were promising more than they could deliver and hoping that the computer would catch up. But Jobs was selling it as an educational machine and getting all these colleges interested. I went to Brown, one of many schools that got a discount price. I was interested in writing, and I was lucky enough to have a parent rich and generous enough to spring for one -- so I bought a Mac, and fell in love with it.
I talk about this a little in "Data Smog." What can you say about the Mac? It had a great feel aesthetically, and once you got past the shell -- which was pleasant enough to use, the word processing aspect -- it felt almost like you had this extension brain. You could play around with your thoughts on the computer; you could write horrible sentences and then just quickly make them better.
Plus it was tons of fun. I think our generation has inherited a near-utopian view of technology. Mostly for appropriate reasons: technology has done so many wonderful things for humanity in general and Americans in particular. Disagree with me if you want to, but that's the context we grew up in. We had all these machines, our parents had machines that their parents didn't have...
DB: Every generation gets a better set of machines.
DS: Right. There were side effects and unintended consequences, but basically the cars are better, the cleaning devices are better, our houses have better temperature control. When I was growing up in the seventies, it was like a combination of serious machines and all these gadgets like CB radios and little portable TVs.
DB: And "Data Smog" is questioning aspects of information technology. Is that a fair assessment?
DS: Yeah, I think so. The book is written from the perspective of someone who grew up in the context that we just discussed. I didn't hear anyone say a bad word about technology until I was out of college. Technology, and computers in particular, have been a very important part of my life -- even before college, actually, because we had an Apple II+ when was a teenager. My book is about how, in the last five or ten years, I have started to discover some of the unintended, unwanted side effects of the technology that I was using to enhance my life -- not questioning whether it does enhance my life, or our lives, but asking if I need to set limits on how much time and power I turn over to the technology.
DB: You've referred to "information glut." Is that the problem you're talking about?
DS: Well, yeah. I give other examples of unintended consequences. But this book is basically about how, putting the other technology aside, information technologies -- by speeding up information and enabling more and more of us to create, manipulate, and distribute information, with all of the wonderful benefits that that's had -- have also led to this sort of informational-environmental problem that I see as a parallel to our environmental problems as a result of the Industrial Age. We are unquestionably enjoying the benefits of information technology, and hopefully we always will, but there is this sort of information ecology which I think has its problems, its downside.
DB: "Data Smog" is structured as a kind of biopsy that shows all the symptoms of this disease that's spreading through our organism.
DS: That's right.
DB: You talk about the fragmentation of individuals online, the fragmentation of society, how people become so isolated that there is no longer any shared context between individuals, and how this creates a problem in terms of ... well, how would you describe it?
DS: People like to talk about how much the Internet and other information technologies enhance community. I think that we're missing the larger point, that "community" is the wrong word. And I don't know exactly what the word is that these technologies are helping -- microcommunities, or subcultures. Information technology has allowed us to specialize our interests. In some ways, it's forced us to specialize our interests, because it seems to be a natural response, when you have access to a lot of information, to narrow your focus.
I see that as a life-enhancing process. More and more of us can increasingly spend more of our time focused on real specific areas of interest, whether it's hobbies, music, art, food, or specialized areas of academics, or engineering, or business, whatever -- that's a life-enhancing phenomenon.
But there's a tradeoff. We diminish our larger community. The more we specialize, the less we have in common with whatever we want to call our larger community. I don't necessarily want to go back to a time where we only had three networks, and those were our only information choices, but we do lose something when we go away from that world. The New York Times is much more important than it used to be, because it's one of the few things that a large segment of people, at least the elite (you know, the world that we live in), have in common! Even people like you and me and our friends share relatively little information. I mean, we all know what's going on with the hottest celebrity trial, and we know who won an Oscar, but things like that are now heightened in importance because we share so little else.
DB: Watching the Oscars, I was thinking about data smog, because I realized that this is probably the most widely watched thing now in our culture. A commercial appeared for this new Direct Broadcast Satellite System, and the pitch was: not only do you get 160 channels, but they had organized them -- they had actually grouped the channels in categories. All the sports channels might be in a ten-channel, side-by-side area on your dial, and all the movie channels might be the next ten. This was pitched as a terrific value-added. They've taken this problem of fragmentation, this sense of overload that people get from 160 channels, and given them context.
DS: That's funny. I didn't notice the irony that in this sort of one last vestige of common information, the Oscars, one of the leading edges of fragmenting technology was being touted.
Just to take a step back: overall, I think, these technologies that fragment us are good for us individually, although in the beginning of the book I talk about techno-stress and information anxiety -- and I do think there is a serious personal-stress element to data smog, to information overload.
But we're still pretty good at managing data stress or information anxiety or information overload on a personal level. We've become an information society in the last 30-40-50 years. (Just as an aside, "Data Smog" isn't just about the last three years on the Internet; it's about the Information Revolution in a broader sense.) There's been this information revolution; alongside that, there's been this increase in stress. Obviously, there are other factors, but clearly there's a relationship between our increasingly stressed-out lives and the speed of information. The speed and what I call the density: commercials are shorter and quicker, and there's more MTVization of TV, and now we're on the brink (unfortunately) of seeing the net become an instrument of TV. Information comes faster. There's an expectation, because of the technology, that information should be coming faster and that we should be keeping up with it.
On the whole, we're pretty good information managers. But we're not perfect at it, and I think that there is a definite personal stress element to this that some of us probably don't face. I don't want people to think that the book is about how none of us can handle all this information, or we're drowning at sea and there's nothing we can do. A lot of the problems I'm talking about are on the margins, but they are still serious problems.
DB: Is this more a factor of our consumer-driven culture, in which everything can be packaged to somehow make money, or is it just the nature of the technology that television and the Internet will lead to this kind of information overflow?
DS: That's a good question. You know there's a big element of consumer critique of society. I think the industry is pushing us faster and faster, sending commercial messages in increasingly creative ways, finding every little nook and cranny. For me, the straw that broke the camel's back was getting onto airplanes and seeing these TVs on the front of each seat; some of them you can't even turn off -- they're like little advertising billboards.
Since I think the speed of information is very seductive, I think data smog is also, in large part, something that we want and invite. There is a real thrill to being plugged in. I mean, I want a cell phone as much as the next guy, even though I know that there is something really valuable about sort of being detached and having peace and quiet. I love to be on the net and to send email and get an answer right away, and to plow through NEXIS in search of billions of words in a couple of seconds' time.
DB: What is the ultimate cost? Is it truly debilitating, or is it more of a nuisance?
DS: I don't think there's one syndrome. It's not like, "We have Information Age Syndrome, and we can do this one thing to take care of it." But I think it's more than a nuisance for some people.
We know that increasing the information load can impair decisionmaking and lead to overconfidence; that is, you think that you're more informed and better equipped to make a decision than you actually are. A big thing for me is distraction and susceptibility to marketing pitches. The skeptical part of our decisionmaking is delayed a split second while we're taking in information. In a situation of information overload, we don't have time to let the normal skeptical thinking process take place.
DB: Reading the book, I was particularly fascinated by the issues surrounding advertising, and the whole issue of polling and marketing information and dividing America up into demographic categories to fine-tune the delivery of the message. This is extremely effective in terms of getting our attention. But (and the statistics you present -- that, for instance, there are now 2200 percent as many ads as in 1930 -- bear this out) advertisers are complaining that the consumer's ability to remember the messages is declining steeply. It sounds like a kind of arms race is going on, where we're getting more and more accustomed to being bombarded with ads, so our threshold is higher. So the advertiser uses more powerful tools to get through, and in turn we get used to those and the threshold rises again.
Are we somehow winning this arms race against the advertisers, where they are perpetually playing catch-up to our innate ability to tune out the thousands of ads we see every day?
DS: You go into an advertising firm, and they're as frustrated by this as anyone, because it's harder to get people's attention. I think Esther Dyson said: the real limited resource now is attention. It's not going to increase. We're not going to sleep any less (this isn't her talking; this is me); we're still going to have the same amount of time and energy, and yet there's more people trying to get our attention and more information for us to filter through.
It's true that advertisers can't just have us when they want us. On the other hand, there's something really debilitating about advertisers doing increasingly desperate things to get our attention -- and not just advertisers. Anyone who is trying to sell anything, whether it's a product or an idea, has to work harder now to get people's attention.
I mean, one of my few original ideas in "Data Smog" is that rather than ascribing the vulgarization or coarsening of our culture to a family values problem, I think it's an information problem. I think it's a simple dynamic, that the harder it is to get our attention, the more everyone has to resort to shocking tactics. That explains Howard Stern better than anything else I can come up with.
DB: Isn't this the cultural critique you're making in the book: that we have lost this hard-to-describe quality of niceness, that there's been this sort of vulgarization of our existence, we've gone over a precipice, and how do we get back?
DS: I don't want to overstate it. I think our culture actually works really well in a lot of ways. But I think we do need to stop and ask ourselves what we're saying goodbye to. I mean, where is the serenity in life? Where is the leisurely consideration of ideas? This is very clichéd, but are people going to read books? Are they going to sit down and read at a more deliberate pace, read and take in ideas, and then transmit those ideas?
I don't want to live in a world where that has vanished, where everything takes place at the speed of email. Even though one is capable of sending an intense, thoughtful idea, the speed of the medium doesn't encourage deliberation. I think it's difficult to read and really consider stuff at the same thoughtful level on the net that we can in newspapers or books.
DB: This interview is going to appear on a website; people will read it on a computer screen. Do you think they'll experience it differently than they would if this same transcript were to appear in print?
DS: It's a matter of degree. It's possible that people can slow down the way they're thinking and the way they're reading, and minimize their distractions, and appreciate this as much on a computer screen as they would on paper. Speaking from personal experience, that's really hard for me to do. I find that when I'm reading something on a computer screen, first of all, if there are any links at all, I'm tempted to take them. That's what links are. They invite you to go somewhere else. And even if I don't do it, there is that itchiness: the speed and the distraction and the choices, whereas if you're reading it on a piece of paper, you are offered no options. There's something nice about just having one thing to do and being focused.
We can say computer monitors are going to get better; they'll feel more like paper, and it will be a more pleasant experience. That's probably true. But there is something about being attached to a timed medium, you know, where we have all these choices, that is ... for me, it's a problem.
DB: I'll do one of my newsletters on line, and it will get sent all over the Internet, and people will read it in email; then a magazine might say, "We'd like to buy the rights to this," and they'll print it, and I'll get mail who from people who've read it in print. Their mail usually has a different kind of thoughtfulness.
DS: It shows that they've given more attention to it?
DB: They gave more attention to it. I'm wondering if that's related to this feeling of tension, that at any moment something on screen could just vanish. Like, you unplug your computer and it obviously vanishes. Or that feeling of just the electricity in the monitor implying that it might vanish at any moment.
DS: Yeah, it might be as simple as that. It might just be the fact that we're on this electronic medium that has this sort of buzz to it.
My analysis is similar to what you were saying: there's just sort of a buzz, an expectation -- mania may be the best word for it -- that encourages us to move at a slightly faster pace than somehow makes sense for us.
Click here for Part Two of David Bennahum's Interminds Interview with David Shenk.
It seems to me that we should address the needs of our educational system using the net as a highway to provide the needed classes. I envision a combination of television, computer and in-class lectures that will offer top of the line information to all, cutting away the need for holding some students back for lack of funds while giving the rich the better advantage of higher learning.
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