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Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow

Excerpts from Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut
David Shenk

Electric Minds is proud to present excerpts from David Shenk's book "Data Smog."

"Data Smog" examines how information overload affects our health, our mental acuity, our relationships and our sense of self. It explores the social and political consequences of the information revolution -- the ferocious upgrading of machinery, the spiraling noise level, the overall coarsening of our culture. And finally, it offers specific suggestions for minimizing data smog's polluting effects.

Be sure to read David Bennahum's Interminds Interview with author David Shenk, where he discusses in depth some of the themes brought up in "Data Smog."

* - * - * - *

Data Smog coverSomething marvelous has been happening to humankind -- not just in the last three or four years with computers and the Internet, but more broadly in the last several decades. Information is moving faster and becoming more plentiful, and people everywhere are benefiting from this change.

But there's a surprising postscript to this story. When it comes to information, it turns out that one can have too much of a good thing. At a certain level of input, the law of diminishing returns takes effect; the glut of information no longer adds to our quality of life, but instead begins to cultivate stress, confusion, and even ignorance. Information overload threatens our ability to educate ourselves, and leaves us more vulnerable as consumers and less cohesive as a society. For most of us, it actually diminishes our control over our own lives, while those already in power find their positions considerably strengthened.

For all the wonders of the information revolution, a menacing cloud of "data smog" has drifted in. In these pages, we will explore its unwholesome properties and suggest some healthful remedies. This book aims to to be a reminder of the critical distinction between information and understanding, and it demonstrates why you don't have to feel personally overloaded with information to be a victim of the information glut. "Data Smog" is also designed to counteract much of the corporate hype surrounding (and driving) the information revolution.

* - * - * - *

* - Signal to Noise - *

In a very short span of natural history, we have vaulted from a state of information scarcity to one of information surplus. In 1850, 4 percent of American workers handled information for a living; now most do, and information processing (as opposed to material goods) now accounts for more than half of the US gross national product. Data has become more plentiful, more speedy (computer processing speed has doubled every two years for the last thirty years), and more dense.

Information has also become a lot cheaper -- to produce, to manipulate, to disseminate. Consequently, virtually anyone can very easily become an information-glutton. We now face the prospect of information obesity.

Just as fat has replaced starvation as this nation's number one dietary concern, information overload has replaced information scarcity as an important new emotional, social, and political problem. "The real issue for future technology," says Columbia's Eli Noam, "does not appear to be production of information, and certainly not transmission. Almost anybody can add information. The difficult question is how to reduce it."

* - *

Audio buffs have long been familiar with the phrase "signal-to-noise ratio." It is engineering parlance for measuring the quality of a sound system by comparing the amount of desired audio signal to the amount of unwanted noise leaking through. In the information age, signal-to-noise has also become a useful way to think about social health and stability. How much of the information in our midst is useful, and how much of it gets in the way? What is our signal-to-noise ratio?

We know that the ratio has diminished of late, and that the character of information has changed: As we have accrued more and more of it, information has emerged not only as a currency, but also as a pollutant.

Let us call this unexpected, unwelcome part of our atmosphere "data smog," an expression for the noxious muck and druck of the information age. Data smog gets in the way; it crowds out quiet moments, and obstructs much-needed contemplation. It spoils conversation, literature, and even entertainment. It thwarts skepticism, rendering us less sophisticated as consumers and citizens. It stresses us out.

Data smog is not just the pile of unsolicited catalogs and spam arriving daily in our home and electronic mailboxes. It is also information that we pay handsomely for, that we crave - the seductive, mesmerizing quick-cuts television ads and the twenty-four-hour up-to-the-minute news flashes. It is the faxes we request as well as the ones we don't; it is the misdialed numbers and drippy sales calls get during dinner time; but it is also the Web sites we eagerly visit before and after dinner, the pile of magazines we pore through every month, and the dozens of channels we flip through whenever we get a free moment.

* - Virtual Anarchy - *

Paralysis by Analysis

The proliferation of expert opinion has ushered in a virtual anarchy of expertise. To follow the news today is to have the surreal understanding that the earth is melting and the earth is cooling; that nuclear power is safe and nuclear power is not safe; that affirmative action works -- or wait, no it doesn't. In the era of limitless data, there is always an opportunity to crunch some more numbers, spin them a bit, and prove the opposite. Would jobs have been gained or lost under Bill Clinton's comprehensive health care plan? Is Dioxin as dangerous as we once thought? Do vitamins prevent cancer? With the widening pool of elaborate studies and arguments on every side of every question, more expert knowledge has, paradoxically, led to less clarity.

The New York Times aptly calls this phenomenon "volleys of data." Statistics and hard facts are one of the fundamental ingredients of a just and civil society; but as with other forms of information, it turns out that too much of a good thing can have unwelcome consequences. The dramatic reduction in the cost of information production and distribution has ushered in an era of seemingly endless argumentation.

Journalists and news consumers alike are stymied by the modern tendency of statistics to argue in every direction. Anyone who has attempted to conscientiously research a medical or political issue has confronted this problem directly: The endless analysis is so overwhelming, it is difficult to know how and when to decide.

Cyberspace enthusiasts have a favorite motto that they commonly employ in debates against people who favor regulation and censorship: "Information wants to be free." By this they simply mean that digital information is so easily replicated and disseminated that the information itself takes on a libertarian personality. But that freedom isn't completely without its drawbacks. As early as 1938, H.G. Wells recognized that the proliferation of information was feeding a cycle of perpetual intellectual conflict. For a technical problem, Wells proposed a technical solution -- the "World Brain," an electronic encyclopedia that, he argued, would "bring together into close juxtaposition and under critical scrutiny many apparently conflicting systems of statement clearing house of misunderstanding."

Alas, Wells's hopeful vision has not been realized. Instead, technology inadvertently adds to the confusion by generating more and more material and by making much of it instantly accessible.

* - *

The psychological reaction to such as overabundance of information and competing expert opinions is to simply avoid coming to conclusions. "You can't choose any one study, any one voice, any one spokesperson for a point of view," explains psychologist Robert Cialdini. "So what do you do? It turns out that the answer is: you don't do anything. You reserve judgment. You wait and see what the predominance of opinion will be."

"But," Cialdini continues, confronting the paradox, "I don't know that we have the luxury to wait that long, in modern life."

As the amount of information and competing claims stretches toward infinity, the concern is that we may be on the verge of a whole new wave of indecisiveness: paralysis by analysis. (In this way, technology brings with it yet another internal contradiction: as it speeds up our world in the name of efficiency and productivity, it also constricts rational thinking.)

* - *

Civilization has thrived on an increasing diet of science and other reliable statistics. Applied data has answered millions of important questions about how to live a better life. But with today's runaway pace of information, we may have come upon too much of a good thing. Information may want to be free, but that freedom in and of itself isn't enough to support humanity. We also depend on information's integrity, and not a little discipline.

* - A New Order - *


Technology has made direct surveillance so easy and cheap that virtually no one is safe from electronic snoops. There was the McDonald's manager in New York whose "private" voice mail messages from his secret lover were intercepted by management and played for his wife ... There was the journalist who sat down to her terminal one day and began to sketch out a first draft of her story when - from out of nowhere - a sentence appeared on her computer monitor that she had not written: "I don't like that lead!" It was her editor, taking an unsolicited look-see from another floor in the building ... There is Ron Edens, founder of Electronic Banking Systems, a direct-mail donation processor, who tracks his data-entry clerks not only by keystroke and error-rate, but also with eight hidden video cameras from his office. "There's a little bit of Sneaky Pete to it," he brags, adding: "It's easier from behind, because they don't know you're watching."

But these bone-chilling anecdotes from the workplace tell only a small part of the modern surveillance story. The don't even begin to convey the vast scope of dataveillance, the massive collection and distillation of consumer data into a hyper-sophisticated brand of marketing analysis.

What once might have been considered harmless personal trivia -- which videos you rented last week, whether you like starch in your laundered shirts, whether you use name-brand or generic aspirin -- can today all be turned into useful intelligence by powerful cross-referencing databases; what to mere mortals is distracting, noisy, confusing, stress-producing data smog is to these smog-analyzing machines a powerful new blueprint of human culture. "Our smallest actions leave digital trails," writes Nicholas Negroponte in Wired. "Blockbuster, American Express, and your local telephone company can suddenly pool their bits in a few keystrokes and learn a great deal about you. This is just the beginning: each credit-card charge, each supermarket checkout, and each postal delivery can be added to the equation."

Information gathering has become so convenient and cost-effective that personal privacy has replaced censorship as our primary civil liberties concern. Dataveillance marks the transformation of meddlesome data smog into corporate rocket fuel. "Marketers should take full advantage of the information explosion to target specific individuals by economic, demographic, and life-style characteristics," exhorts a National Information Systems brochure boasting of a database with detailed information on 80 million consumers.

The End of Journalism?

Dataveillance constitutes an intimidating tool for tomorrow's salesperson. But perhaps the best news of all for marketers is that they increasingly have a direct line to their customers, unobstructed by the news media. "Tomorrow's communications techniques may allow PR people to bypass reporters completely," gushes a public relations newsletter. "Eliminating the media 'middlemen' also holds the potential of reducing the power of the press and forging more intimate bonds between PR people and their clients."

Reducing the power of the press is a terrible thing to do to a democratic society, but an enormous short-term value for anyone trying to sell something. For the business community and for politicians, the prospect of bypassing journalists holds the allure of circumventing public skepticism, intellectual curiosity, and rational analysis. It is the promise of being able to make an elaborate sales pitch completely uncontested.

* - *

As niche media proliferates and consumers get their news from a wider variety of sources, media entrepreneurs can even begin to plausibly suggest that journalists have become obsolete. "Why should the media be allowed to filter your message anyway?" demands America Online services president Ted Leonsis. "In the near future, everybody will have access to all the information they need to make their own decisions. So who needs the media to deliver content? I hate to say it, but I think the media are in a death spiral."

Who needs the news media? Given the low opinion of the fourth estate, and its declining audience, Leonsis's blunt question must be taken at face value. What is the value of having a news media, circa 1997? As Leonsis correctly asserts, the new media increasingly allows people to find much of the information they need without having to consult traditional journalists.

But journalism is not limited to "news," and Leonsis's declaration foolishly overlooks the larger value of journalism, which is not made obsolete by the emerging capability of consumers to directly locate pertinent information. Journalists help explain our own lives and society to us. The journalist's loyalty is to some semblance of fairness, if not pure objectivity, whereas the loyalty of marketers is to sales of a particular product.

In fact, journalists are more necessary in the glutted world. As a skeptical analytical buffer and -- now more than ever -- as an arbiter of statistical claims, the news media are an indispensable public utility, every bit as vital as our electricity and gas lines. In a world with vastly more information than it can process, journalists are the most important processors we have. They help us filter information without spinning it in the direction of one company or another. Further, as society becomes splintered, it is journalists who provide the vital social glue to keep us at least partly intact as a common unit. For democracy as we know it, a bypassed media would be a disaster.

* - A Return to Meaning - *

What Then Must Be Done?

The very idea of actively eliminating information is such anathema to our culture, it is enshrined as one of our few social taboos under the label of "censorship." Not only is it instinctively distasteful -- on first blush, wholesale reduction of information also seems like an impossibile proposition, analogous to stopping sand from accruing on a beach.

* - *

We must now strive to return to an equilibrium between the three basic elements of our information ecology -- production, distribution, and processing. The goal should be to maintain and even increase ready access to reliable communication and useful information, but to do so without compromising a certain social serenity and without allowing society to disintegrate into a fragmented, fractious Tower of Babel -- its citizens not able to come together nor even understand one another.

The good news is, there are a number of promising remedies for data smog. They are ours to invoke if we have the will to do so.

Antidote 1: Be Your Own Filter

The first remedy is simply to identify the clutter and start sweeping it away. Most of us have excess information in our lives, distracting us, pulling us away from our prioritize and from a much-desired tranquility. If we stop just for a moment to look (and listen) around us, we will begin to notice a series of data streams we'd be better off without, including some distractions we pay handsomely for.

Antidote 2: Be Your Own Editor

After learning how to filter input, one must shift concern to the equally important task of limiting output. Amidst the data smog, a new kind of social responsibility has emerged -- an obligation to be succinct. Just as we've had to curtail our toxic emissions in the physical world, the information glut demands that we all be more economical about what we say, write, publish, broadcast, and post online. People who recklessly pump redundant or obfuscatory information into society are the information age equivalents of the miscreants who open their car door at a stop light to dump trash onto the street.

Antidote 3: Simplify

Between input and output, there is life itself. How does one live a meaningful life in an ever-more complex and distracting world? One helpful ingredient, I've found, is to embrace a new paradigm of simplicity.

It is often said that we are on the cusp of a whole new age when intelligent machines will take over much of the work we do. I suspect that just the opposite may be true -- that we are about to comprehend the true limitations of machines. Once we realize that information technology truly cannot replace human experience, that as it increases the available information it also helps devalue the meaning of each piece of information, we will be on the road to reasserting our dominance over technology.

Antidote 4: De-nichify

How to change our electronic Tower of Babel into a modern Agora? The answer is easy, though the solution is not: We need to talk to one another. Recall Bill Bradley's challenge: "When was the last time you talked about race with someone of a different race? If the answer is never, you're part of the problem."

As we reach across cultural boundaries and pursue interdisciplinary studies, we are pursuing the best kind of education -- not just learning how to become more efficient at a specialized task, but how to interact with the rest of humanity. These sorts of pursuits enable us to embrace the joys of education as the best possible antidote to data smog. Education is anti-glut. It is the harnessing of information, organizing it into knowledge and memory. Education also breeds a healthy skepticism, and will help consumers fend off manipulative marketing tactics. Education is the one thing we can't get overloaded with. The more of it, the better.

Antidote 5: Don't Forsake Government; Help Improve It

Finally, for collective fixes more appropriately enacted on behalf of all society, we must call on that awkward but thoroughly necessary beast, government.

Yes, government. Federal initiatives are badly needed, mostly because technology policy is too important to be surrendered to chance or to the wealthiest corporations. The cyber-libertarian community has made anti-government rhetoric a fashionable part of the information revolution, mostly in response to a lot of very thoughtless federal legislation. After a particularly stupid law was signed by President Clinton in 1996 -- the Communications Decency Act, which aimed to excessively curb speech online -- leading cyber thinker John Perry Barlow issued a "Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace," which rashly proclaimed the Net to be its own world, not a functioning part of conventional society.

Respectfully, I dissent. The Net is not literally a new world vested with its own sovereignty; it is a new and exciting facet of society, created and subsidized by a democratic government that, for all of its well-publicized bungling and wastefulness, actually works pretty well. Barlow is absolutely correct in describing cyberspace as a very different organism from our physical world. Ultimately, though, the former must fall under the jurisdiction of the latter.

* - *

Tempting though it often is, we must resist the urge to snidely dismiss the relevance and utility of government. In fact, we must embrace our democratic government and what it stands for -- a body created by the citizens in order to serve the interests of their collective society. I say this not as a relexive supporter of bureaucracy, but because our public sector has endured an unwarranted bashing in recent years. Good government has helped to make the United States an unparalleled success story in the history of mankind.

There is a special wrinkle, though, in promulgating regulations for the information society. That wrinkle is the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The right to say and publish virtually anything is a sacred one in a free society. We can't -- and wouldn't want to -- infringe on personal or political expression. So, instead, we should seek to control some of its unsavory consequences, and rein in some of those who would use technology to abuse or exploit us.

* - * - * - *

Join the discussion of "Data Smog" in the Tomorrow conference!

From "Data Smog" by David Shenk. Copyright © 1997 by David Shenk. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperEdge, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

librarybob said:

I think it would be useful to distinguish between "innate ability" and "the result after many years of acculturation and schooling" to define "dumb". I wouldn't think it likely that there has been an innate (genetic) change, so that if people have indeed been dumbed down, it must be due to environmental causes. Actually, maybe "dumbed down" isn't quite right--maybe very committed to "low" and "mid" culture that really doesn't demand much thinking. A problem I see is that both of these are "ahistoric," living in the here and now with little sense of a past and little sense of a future. They lack a larger context.

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Data Smog cover


About the Author

David Shenk, a 1995-96 Fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, has written for Wired Harper's, Spy, and the Washington Post, and has been a commentator for public radio's "Marketplace" and The Microsoft Network. He is also the co-author of "Skeleton Key: A Dictionary For Deadheads."
Click here to
buy "Data Smog."

The Laws of Data Smog
  1. Information, once rare and cherished like caviar, is now plentiful and taken for granted like potatoes.

  2. Silicon circuits evolve much more quickly than human genes.

  3. Computers are neither human nor humane.

  4. Putting a computer in every classroom is like putting an electric power plant in every home.

  5. What they sell is not information technology, but information anxiety.

  6. Too many experts spoil the clarity.

  7. All high-stim roads lead to Times Square.

  8. Birds of a feather flock virtually together.

  9. The electronic town hall allows for speedy communication and bad decisionmaking.

  10. Equifax is watching.

  11. Beware stories that dissolve all complexity.

  12. On the information highway, most roads bypass journalists.

  13. Cyberspace is Republican.

* - *

From 1965 to 1995, the average network television advertisement shrunk from 53.1 seconds to 25.4 seconds and the average TV news "soundbite" shrunk from 42.3 seconds to 8.3 seconds; meanwhile, over the same period, the number of ads per network TV minute increased from 1.1 to 2.4.

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In 1971, the average American was targeted by at least 560 daily advertising messages. Twenty years later, than number had risen sixfold, to 3,000 messages a day.

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In the office, an average of 60 percent of each person's time is now spent processing documents.

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Paper consumption per capita in the United States tripled from 1940 to 1980 (from 200 to 600 pounds), and tripled again from 1980 to 1990 (to 1,800 pounds).

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In the 1980s, third-class mail (used to send publications) grew thirteen times faster than population growth.

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The typical business manager is said to read 1 million words per week.

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As of 1990, more than 30,000 telemarketing companies employed 18 million Americans, and generated $400 billion in annual sales.

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David Shenk's Pie-in-the-Sky Legislative Agenda
  1. The government should help citizens defend themselves against data spam.

  2. Cities and states should guarantee refuge from data smog.

  3. Prohibit government agencies and companies from using information.

  4. The FTC should root out consumer fraud and improve efforts at consumer education.

  5. All government documents should not only be accessible, but approachable.

  6. Reformulate the issue of "information have-nots."

  7. Consensus conferences on technology policy.

Also in Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow:

Collaborative Filtering
How companies match people with information on the Internet.

excerpts from "What Will Be"
Excerpts from Michael Dertouzos's book "What Will Be."

Digital Maps:
Political Tools and More

Online maps do more than help you find your way around.

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