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Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut

Author: David Shenk
Publisher: New York: HarperEdge, 1997
Review Published: April 1998

 REVIEW 1: Will Winton

Issac Asimov, on the last page of his magnum opus, I ROBOT, presciently discusses the nature of technology in a society whose foundations are rooted in the machine:

"But you are telling me, Susan, that the 'Society of Humanity' is right; and that Mankind has lost its own say in the future."

"It never had any, really. It was always at the mercy of economic and sociological forces it did not understand-at the whims of climate and the fortunes of war. Now the Machines understand them; and no one can stop them, since the Machines will deal with them as they are dealing with the Society -- having, as they do, the greatest weapons at their disposal, the absolute control of our economy."

"How horrible."

Susan Calvin, the pollyanna of the Enlightened Machine Age, would take issue with David Shenk's Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut. Unlike Dr. Calvin and, by extension, the early science fiction masters such as Mr. Asimov, Mr. Shenk challenges the notion that technology will lead society to a cultural nirvana. Data Smog approaches the "information society" that has arisen in the past twenty years and professes dismay at what is there.

Data Smog is a refreshing and important book. Refreshing for what it is not -- that is, a mindless ode to the information age; important in that Mr. Shenk coalesces many previous ideas concerning the nature of communication, technology and society into a cogent and, at times, biting critique of the "Info World." Mr. Shenk does not preach; rather, he cautiously enunciates several "Laws of Data Smog" and proceeds to explain the basis of each. The theory of "Data Smog" is premised on the notion that information, contrary to popular belief, is neither unbiased nor neutral, but rather invidious and potentially destabilizing to established culture. In accordance with this theory, information has become synonymous with power. Paradoxically, the unbridled nature of the modern information stream creates a power that is at times uncontrolled and perfidious.

Data Smog is divided into four major sections. "Signal to Noise" and "Virtual Anarchy" describe the problems with the economy and culture of information. Mr. Shenk begins by describing the personal impact such technology can have on one's everyday life. As we become more and more inured with all aspects of technology, from fax machines to Web browsers, we begin to lose time for repose and contemplation. We can’t think because our love of technology does not allow for thoughtful reflection. Indeed, Mr. Shenk rightly claims: "The blank spaces and silent moments in life are fast disappearing. Mostly because we have asked for it, media is everywhere."

While this complaint is not necessarily profound, it takes on new meaning in a world saturated by the media. It also forms the basis of Mr. Shenk's thesis throughout the book.

Mr. Shenk's observation, nevertheless, resonates with this reviewer, whose life is bifurcated between dual careers as an traditional artist and communications professional and is particularly sensitive to the loss of such "blank spaces." Mr. Shenk correctly posits that computers, while bestowing many advantages upon the user, exact a price in time left for reflection. Computers have, for example, erased completely the idea of a leisurely business lunch (and are about to erase the idea of lunch period). The underlying chord of Data Smog revolves around the idea of computers and time. With machines executing tasks instantly, the concept of wasted time is at once rendered nugatory (on a practical level) and overarchingly important (on a human level). The paradox lies in the fact that computers, for many tasks, will always and forever be more efficient than their human masters. Nevertheless, seemingly old-fashioned notions of creativity, innovation, intuition will forever remain the realm of the human brain (A.I. aside -- despite Stanley Kubrick's rosy predictions, we’re still many years away from anything approaching HAL). The growing discontinuity between the human overseer and the silicon thrall has yet to be fully explored.

The second section, "Virtual Anarchy," argues that this tide of information has not made life easier, enhanced societal relations, or improved the political milieu. The points made in this section of Data Smog resonate throughout the rest of the book. Mr. Shenk describes the brittle nature of a culture based on the atomistic belief that every opinion, however ill-reasoned, has great voice in the wilderness of cyberspace: "One of the most vivid consequences of the information glut is a culture awash in histrionics...In the immediate sense pumping up the volume is...extremely effective. More broadly, though, it becomes part of the problem, feeding a vicious spiral in which the data smog becomes thicker and thicker and the efforts to cut through smog get ever more desperate...The volume and vulgarity increase notch by notch, alongside the glut" (102).

Hence, the (oft lauded) disintermediation of "data smog." Without gatekeepers of any type, hype, misinformation, and sheer innuendo become a sort of background noise, drowning out any attempt at simple, reasoned, discourse. The notion of a mass culture as vulgar and loud is not new. However, the relentless effect of "data smog" in cyberspace pollutes other, more "traditional" and, importantly, intermediated, forms of mass communication. The implications are troubling to anyone with even a passing interest in civil discourse. Mr. Shenk traces this info babble-on to the Claritas demographic marketing system. I would tend to disagree with so simple an answer. Claritas responded to a need -- that is, for industry and commercial enterprises to reduce marketing costs. The roots of American cultural disjointedness are deeper than simple marketing evolution.

Nonetheless, Mr. Shenk astutely demonstrates the deleterious effects such nichification has on culture, and even more importantly, politics. Observations such as the ones Mr. Shenk make are quite worrisome to those who embrace the liberal, multifarious, nature of American politics: "People have more of a voice, but-with the increasing complexity and fragmentation of society-less and less of an ability to self-govern" (137). Thus, Mr. Shenk recasts the traditional lament of American disinterest in politics in a starker, more troubling light.

I am less sanguine as to Mr. Shenk's conclusions found in the third part of Data Smog, "A New Order." The name of the chapter is rather cliched, and while his observations do have a certain ring of truth, others sit on rather muddy foundations. It's worthwhile, nevertheless, to analyze two chapters that illustrate the problems of this section. "Datavalence," Mr. Shenk's discourse on the increasingly pervasive nature of electronic record keeping, is, topically, quite frightening. Mr. Shenk (quoting Orwell from the outset) conjures up the worst images of a society surveiled to the minutest degree. In reality, one can argue that society today, at least in relation to electronic surveillance, benefits from the very fragmentation that Mr. Shenk decries in other chapters. The idea that commercial, political and governmental bodies peer into the minutiae of every aspect of one's daily existence does not bear up to empirical observation. The notion that the mass of Americans are sheep who have little clue as to what commercial and governmental interests are up to is plainly flawed. Quite the contrary, I would posit that Americans are all too aware of the desires of marketing agencies to grasp their spending and living preferences. Many Americans, furthermore, have taken steps to avoid just such prying eyes. So much has been made of such "datavalence" that Americans (especially younger, more "wired" ones) are becoming harder to size up. For proof, one needs only to look towards "clear Pepsi" -- a marketing flop on the order of "New Coke." The marketeers of Pepsi, supposedly clued into the tastes of the American public, spent millions for naught. Mr. Shenk is correct to surmise that such "datavalence" is insidious. However, it is not as perfidious as one might expect. To wit: in the sea that is the American market, it is easy to go unnoticed and unbothered; one merely has to swim in the right school.

Mr. Shenk, however, hits the nail on the head in the chapter entitled "Anecdotage." "Anecdotage" refers to the common occurrence of anecdotes, apocrypha, and half-truths taking a life of their own in contemporary cultural thought. Mr. Shenk argues that the torrents of information that flow through our society contribute directly to the rise in anecdotage: "If the information glut can be likened to the danger of eating too much, anecdotage...is like scarfing down too many sweets: It is a short-cut to quick pleasure and short-term satisfaction, but ultimately it can be unfulfilling, and even dangerous -- 'empty calories' that can disturb a nutritious regimen" (157).

Combined with the general American apathy towards public affairs, this propensity to believe anything that sounds reasonable leads to the dissemination of apocrypha clothed in the garments of revealed truths. Mr. Shenk gives several famous examples, such as President Reagan's "Welfare Queens," President Bush's "Supermarket Scanner," and President Clinton's infamous Air Force One haircut that supposedly tied up air traffic over Los Angeles for hours. As these stories demonstrate, in our age of "instant instance," lies "will move so much faster than truth, [that] they will too often become the truth" (162). As one who deals regularly with a predominantly misinformed public on a daily basis, this reviewer encounters anecdotage on a scale that would cause a Welfare Queen to blush.

Data Smog ends with an call to "Return to Meaning." Mr. Shenk, having led the reader through the bogs of cyberia, attempts to offer solutions that the reader can use to cut through the "data smog." Based on more common sense than any real revelations, they nevertheless resonate with those of us who suffer the everyday effects of "data smog."

Data Smog is, to steal the author's phrase, a "quilt of intelligence." While there are no new ideas here, the book represents a coalescence of sound old ideas. The term "data smog" is a fancy name for an old fashioned concept, information overload. Yet, Mr. Shenk manages to merge effectively a seemingly disparate set of conclusions into a strong, readable, and quite enjoyable argument. Mr. Shenk has proven to be adept at "stirring the pot" and distills in a mere 200 pages many of the nagging problems raised by our "information society." Those of us who deal with the Internet, the Web and other modern communications technologies on a daily basis recognize instantly what Mr. Shenk is talking about.

Information is not knowledge. Mr. Shenk cuts through much of the hype surrounding the Internet, the Information Age, the Digital Nation, choose your cliche, and peers at the core. His observations are troubling to anyone who cares about the fundamental underpinnings of American society, culture, and polity. We are awash in information. Yet, as Mr. Shenk (and others before him) demonstrate, we're not much better off, except, of course, those of us who benefit from the explosion of information (the reviewer included). The concept of "data-smog" is not new. It has been in practice for years at a place that most people don't consider all that cutting edge -- the Library of Congress. Accession times have increased in the past few years at the Library. Paradoxically, this has occurred with the implementation of tens of millions of dollars in upgrades to the cataloging system. Yet, it takes, on average, three years for most items to be completely accessioned into the collection. Moreover, when the much vaunted (and fiendishly complex) electronic catalog goes on the fritz, researchers are forced to use ancient, but in some ways more satisfying methods of calling up volumes.

They walk to the card catalog and search by hand.

Will Winton:
Will Winton is an artist. He earned his master's degree in American studies from the University of Maryland.  <wcwinton@hotmail.com>

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