Part Two of TwoClick here for Part One of David Benahum's Interminds Interview with David Shenk.
Read excerpts from Shenk's book "Data Smog" in Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow.
DB: This medium -- the Internet -- allows the production of a lot more information by people who normally aren't in the information business. I guess normally the difficulty of getting something published in a traditional newspaper or magazine would be like a kind of threshold or a barrier. And once you remove that barrier, clearly there's been an exponential rise in self-publishing and so forth ... I mean, how do you deal with that?
DS: You mean the quality of the information?
DB: Yes. Figuring out what's not rumor, or what's good, what's...
DS: It's hard for me to figure out what the biggest problem is with the Information Age, but I think you might have just put your finger on it: virtually everyone is an information-producer, if they want to be, not just an information-receiver. The increase in information flow is vexing enough, let alone the issues of credibility and verification. It's easy to manipulate what we might call "enhanced" information and images, and soon sound and video, in a way that I think is just going to blow our minds.
There's also the problem that a lot of potential guidance and thoughtful insight are now so diffused that it's extremely difficult to get any kind of education or direction. For a long time, a subsection of society controlled most of the means of communication and idea distribution, through newspapers, publishing companies, whatever the technology was. For the very first time ever, I think, in history, in the last five years we've had this situation where suddenly that equation no longer holds true.
But then you think: well, fuck it, who are these people anyway who create information? Why should they have a lock on it? Maybe it's a great thing that it's being broken apart and fragmented, because it means the ability to control a population or manipulate the way we think is diminished.
DB: In the book you talk at one point about this anonymous person who works in Silicon Valley, who is some sort of high-tech entrepreneur. He's complaining that information technology, for all its conveniences, is dragging down the level of our discourse, and that with the increasing pace and distraction of our informationalized culture, our two centuries of democracy will fall prey to demagogues. But then he talks about Franklin Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler, and how they used film and radio to unify their nations. I think to myself, it's interesting that he's saying that, because these very information technologies, like the Internet, are antithetical to the television and film model and to the radio model, in that they are completely fragmenting everything. They may be coarsening our level of debate in that the velocity requires cheap tricks to get our attention. But the flip side is that they are so fragmented that you could never really unify a people that way. Isn't that an amazing, protective development?
DS: Well, it depends. I think that's very well said. Now, it comes down to a political judgment. Are you more worried about tyranny, or are you more worried about a society that works well, that has enough glue to keep it together? I have never had to worry about tyranny. There hasn't been a whole lot of tyranny in Cincinnati, Ohio, or in any other aspect of my life in the States.
I am one of the neo-liberals who believes that we need lots and lots of government, we need it to work really well, and that's going to create the basis of the best society we can create. There are people like John Perry Barlow who are much more concerned with tyranny. I guess the people at Wired and the people who I call cyberlibertarians (I don't know what they call themselves -- anarcho-capitalists?) think the greater danger is tyranny, and they think if we can just reduce the elite and the centralized aspects of society, we're better off. I think that there is a way to have a relatively centralized society. I don't want to overstate the case; I don't want Soviet Russia. But I think that there is a way to have a big government the way we have now, and make it work well; to have all kinds of checks and balances, and to minimize tyranny. If you don't agree with that, then you're not going to agree with a lot of what I'm saying. But I feel very strongly that the danger of tyranny needs to be balanced with the danger of a society that fragments and becomes less efficient and also a lot more dangerous.
DB: I guess the one thing that a central government reflects -- presumably, hopefully, if it works properly -- is the shared values of the whole society that elected it and put it in place.
DS: Freedom is obviously a great thing. I mean, who's going to put down freedom? But we're obsessed with it. We're obsessed with any encroachment on our freedom. I think we need to be vigilant for serious encroachments on our freedom, because we know the value of a free society. On the other hand, I think there's a danger of overstating the case. We've sacrificed many freedoms to what I think is a society that works well and that pays us back.
DB: What are some examples?
DS: Well, there are tons of laws. We live in a society that is, depending on your point of view, either burdened or supported by this incredible web of regulations, from being forbidden to kill or defraud people to being forbidden to drive a truck that's too heavy or has hazardous materials or whose hazardous materials aren't in the right container. We live in a very structured and very regulated society, and it basically works. I don't want to see that go away. I don't think we face a serious danger from tyranny right now; we face more danger from anarchy.
DB: So in the case of data smog, do you see any role at all in terms of government or some set of principles or laws to alleviate what you consider a kind of ecological crisis of our collective consciousness?
DS: Well (this is where the Internet people are really going to hate me!), we can say the Internet is a functioning anarchy, but I don't really think that's true. Actually, it's a functioning set of standards that were originally funded and created by the government, and now are run by other fairly autonomous organizations -- but nonetheless, it's a set of standards. It's languages that we all use, it's software that is compatible with other software.
In my opinion, we're now at a point on the net (if I'm not taking this question too far afield) where we should start seriously considering more standards and, I would think, more editorial standards. We've got some confusion as to who is sponsoring the information that we see, and I also think that we've got a problem of reliability and durability of that information. We never know if this information that we're looking at is going to disappear and never come back. Those of us who spend tons of time on the net -- there are so many great websites that we'd like to go back to, and suddenly we can't find them any more. Or we see pointers that people have found really interesting things, and what happened to them?
We'd be better off in this new information world if we had a firmer set of understandings. If, for instance, each web page had a corner that showed the name of the person who created the page, the source of funding behind the site, the date that it was put online, maybe the date that it was last modified. If you were last on that page two weeks ago or six months ago, you could see if there are changes that you should look for.
If we pick up the New York Times from six months ago, we know we're going to read the same thing that we read six months ago. But a website that looks basically the same as it did six months ago might be -- who knows? Maybe the statistics are reversed.
We ought to start seriously considering standards like that. I don't want to infringe on people's electronic or creative freedom, but I think we'd all be better off if we were operating under a more formal set of understandings.
DB: What are some of the other prescriptions to alleviate data smog? Toward the end of the book, you cite several possibilities to help us survive better.
DS: Well, they're divided into the personal and the political. Not to cop out, but I think reading the book and understanding the issues and talking about them are the best things we can do, personally and politically. I think the best thing we can do is to take a step back and just be a little skeptical about all this technology.
DB: You said at one point that one of the biggest successes of government was the ecological movement and the way that we've cleaned up the environment because of political pressure. Do you think we could bring the same sort of pressures to bear on information ecology?
DS: Well, it's impossible to do it on the same scale, because information is governed by the First Amendment and freedoms that we all think are important, and we can't have the government step in and do the same things to free speech that it did to toxic waste.
DB: An infomercial shouldn't be treated the same way as a toxic spill?
DS: Right, because it's impossible to make the distinctions that you would make in the environmental field. In information, one man's toxin is another man's, you know, steak sandwich or whatever. I wouldn't even begin to advocate that we should change those dynamics.
The government can do a couple of things. I think the biggest threat to our privacy is not the threat that people tend to talk about, but this idea of dataveillance. Technology has come to the point where information that we used to think of as trivial -- information about ourselves that we wouldn't need to protect, like the phone calls we make, the places we call, the things we buy, the TV shows we watch -- have become valuable. Why would I care if some company knew that I happened to watch a half-hour of Seinfeld two weeks ago? But we're getting to the point where you can gather so much personal trivia that it actually puts together a pretty good picture of who I am -- where I live, how to reach me, which TV character do I like and why.
I think government can do something about keeping both governmental and nongovernmental entities from sharing information that they got for a specific purpose. Right now, there is personal information that's kept secret, but there's also all sorts of information that the agencies can share with other government agencies, and that they can put on the public record, and that can ultimately wind up in these huge databases run by places like Equifax. I'd like to see some limitations put on that.
I would also like to see limitations on junk mail. I think software that grabs email addresses and indiscriminately puts them into mass email lists should be against the law. Junk email is an unnecessary burden. It costs all of us a lot of money and attention, and there are practical things that the government could do about it. I don't think it's politically palatable right now, because you know, the buzzword is "letting the Internet be the Internet." But there isn't much danger of tyranny if we just start to institute a few intelligent regulations.
DB: So what is your hope for this book in terms of impact? In your best scenario, what do you foresee? What would you like to see happen with the message?
DS: I'm not ambitious. I just want to start an ongoing, intelligent conversation about data smog. I think it's the kind of term that could be used as a reference point in a society that has unwanted consequences from the speed and volume of information. I'm not a Luddite -- I don't want people to think that I am arguing that technology is not a good thing. I think we just need to be a lot more careful about how we embrace these technologies, we need to look at what each technology itself encourages people to do -- because there is a little bit of embedded ideology in each of these technologies.
DB: Do you have a particular vision of, say, ten years from now, what our information ecology landscape might look like? Sort of worst-case/best-case scenarios.
DS: You can come up with all kinds of worst-case scenarios. I don't know what the best case is. I think a lot of these problems are inevitably going to get worse. I would hope that we don't continue thinking that computers are a wonder drug for our educational problems. It looks to me like our entire educational system is on the verge of investing tons of money in equipment that (a) won't really help that many kids to learn better (I mean, learning is different from accessing lots of raw data; you know, that's what teaching is all about, not electronic access), and (b) will put it so far in the hole ... I mean, five or ten years from now this whole public school system setup of machines will look like Mac Classics look to us now.
DB: Do you feel like this trend of fragmentation and speed is going to begin to dilute, and somehow the natural pendulum of things will start correcting itself?
DS: I feel strongly both ways, as some movie character said. We're probably on the verge (hopefully) of people understanding this stuff and thinking about it more, and therefore being a little bit less susceptible to the hype of the Internet being a utopia, and all this stuff that Bill Gates says about how all this technology is unmitigatedly good, and once we get over the difficulty of the transition we're going to be in this whole new age where society is just so great. I think there is going to be an increasing skepticism about that, and I think that's a good thing.
On the other hand, I think that we are losing a certain serenity in our culture that has given us a lot of important things, and I'm not sure we're going to get it back. We'll lose something when that happens.
Join the conversation about David Shenk and his book "Data Smog" in the Tomorrow Conference!
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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