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.
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June 01, 1998
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Excerpt from Data Smog by David Shenk
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 for my 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?