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Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut

[ Review by Carrie McLaren ]

Where I grew up, it was a big event to find non-top 40 music. An issue of Option would occasionally show up in one of the record stores in nearby St. Petersburg or Tampa. But with no decent radio and no friends who shared my habit, I really had to dig to find out about stuff.

Back then, I never would've expected that people would some day complain about there being too many zines. Or too many records. Or too much email. But the rules for finding various kinds of information have rapidly evolved. In just a few years, we've gone from having to seek out this stuff to sifting it out from the dreck.

New technologies have led to some mighty dizzying contradictions. On one hand, we have easier and greater access to media, and on the other, a more complicated process of retrieving and interpreting information. Spend a little time on the internet and you'll find this out in a hurry. A search for the answer to a simple question can lead to thousands of useless documents. The information may be out there, but who wants to weed through all that crap? Data survivor

In Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, David Shenk argues that technology and information are moving faster than we can process them. The book's strength is identifying the social/psychological uglies that result, from personal tolls--anxiety, stress, depression, insomnia--to large-scale social effects, where things get really complicated. Just a few of the ways the infoglut messes with society:

MORE AND MORE SPECIALIZED WORK. Promoted as making life easier, technology ups the ante, often creating more--not less--work to do and know. Video conferencing saves time, but it also leaves more time for work, and ups the ante for what needs to be done. The laptop makes it possible to work whenever, wherever, for as long as you want!

The more we know, the more we need to know. But unlike technology, our brains aren't expanding, so mastering any subject requires focusing on smaller and smaller pieces of the big picture.

"THE NORMALIZATION OF HYPERBOLE." Sensationalism has been around since the dawn of time, and, with it, people blaming the medium of the day (festivals, dime novels, print advertising, television). But Shenk points out that the problem isn't moral erosion so much as clutter, along with its self- perpetuating mantra, "all publicity is good publicity." There is so much stuff out there that getting heard above the din means out-shocking or out-doing everything else, which inevitably raises the noise level that much more.

MORE (POTENTIAL) CITIZEN POWER COUPLED WITH LESS CITIZEN UNDERSTANDING. Technophiles like to talk about how new technologies give us more voice in government--we can have more, better, faster polls. But that's not going to help if we don't understand what we're voting on. In fact, it makes it worse! We've all heard the statistics about people who can't name the Speaker of the House (it's Newt Gingrich), think Bugs Bunny might be their senator, etc.

Newt Gingrich boasts about making budget negotiations available on the Web "without editing by anyone." Too bad, because without editing, few citizens will have the time or ability to decipher the documents. (It's unfortunate that the infoglut coincides with so many half-witted, blanket attacks on "the media"; while certainly it's our duty to be critical of mass media, we need journalists now more than ever to play interpreter).

Homo Virtualas? This reminds me of an anecdote from Toxic Sludge Is Good for You (Common Courage Press) about the Christian Coalition and its "voter ID file." The Coalition maintains a database on where individual voters stand on key issues. Come election time, the database is used to help Coalition-friendly candidates target voters. For example, in a race for the state legislator, conservative candidate Ken Stolle sent out personalized letters to voters concerned about the local water supply declaring himself "the water candidate." For voters who said crime was the most important issue, Stolle was "the crime candidate." By microtargeting voters, politicians can remake themselves any number of times. It's impossible to know where they really stand without the help of journalists and watchdogs.

Politicians and campaign managers know more about how we vote than we do. As our lives get more complicated, few of us have time to really study key issues affecting the nation and our local communities. (I certainly don't. After thinking all day at work, too much "duty" reading makes me feel like my head will explode.) So we go on autopilot. We choose candidates like we choose toothpaste. Can't decide which of the 300 brands of deodorant to use? Go for the blue one. Don't know anything about your city elections? Vote for the democrat. We cushion ourselves against thinking through every little thing because we must; we'd go crazy otherwise.

INFORMATION OVERLOAD MAKES THE MARKETPLACE A SCARY PLACE. We don't have the time or energy to learn about health insurance, the ins and outs of our power company, or where our produce comes from, but you can rest assured insurance companies, electricity marketers, and biogenetic food processors do.

David Shenk, then, faces the ultimate conundrum: how to write a short, simple book about incredibly huge, complex issues. Because, you know, it'd be great to have the form reflect the content. Besides, without reducing stuff down, you wouldn't be able to talk about it. His generalizations can get to be quite a stretch, though, raising more questions than they answer; like: what is "too much information"? Could there be such a thing as "too much good information"? Virtually human? Information makes a pretty unlikely boogieman. The problem of "too much information" is actually the problem of "there's too much for us to deal with." Information itself is not the problem. This is an important distinction, and it would help Shenk and those of us concerned about these issues to deflect the critics who call us anti-information, anti-choice, and anti-technology.

Then again, though there may be no such thing categorically as "too much information," I could see an argument for there being too much bad information. This gets to what I think is a huge weakness in Shenk's book. He offers no insight into what determines value in information, and he doesn't distinguish between different types of information. So how does one go about deciding what to read or watch, how to determine the good from the bad, how to know what to eliminate?

Most of Shenk's solutions seem to suggest that too much information, categorically, is the problem. Most all the solutions are negative, things not to do: don't info-pollute, don't use more technology than you need, don't read USA Today-styled newsbites, avoid junk mail lists, don't forsake government. While these suggestions may be worthwhile, we need to identify the reasons we're making these judgments. Otherwise, we're treating the symptoms, not the problem.

Depending on what we consider to be valuable information, Shenk's solutions may or may not make sense. For example, he says to avoid newsbites, which serve mostly as entertainment, lack substance, strip events of context, etc. Good reasons. But what if you consider information valuable insofar that it influences your actions? A short puffpiece that provoked you to join a food co-op could then be as valuable as a lengthy article that convinces you to vote for a vegan, whereas an investigative report on Bosnia which had zero impact on your actions could have no value. On the other hand, if you value information that teaches you about political and social issues around the world--regardless of its direct effect on your actions--then the report on Bosnia could be very valuable.

Homo Virtualas? Obviously, value is relative, and information for entertainment will be valued for reasons different than that those for education or socializing . . . but knowing what you value is an essential factor in navigating the info-mess.

Of course, maybe I'm just taking some of Shenk's arguments too personally: without differentiating types of information, he cavalierly lumps together zinesters, letter writers, and DIY artists as glutizens. "The media is us," he writes, and he's absolutely right. But we should be creating more stuff, not less, as Shenk suggests.* I started this rant off with zines to show that infoglut affects even "good" information. But maybe this wasn't the best example because zines are as valuable for how they are created as how they're received. That is, a zine is valuable because the person making it is creating something, taking part in "the media," and helping change the concept of the media as something beyond our grasp. I actually think a zine could be successful even if no one reads it, whereas the same could not be said of a commercial TV network, which gauges success first and foremost by ability to make money (and attract an audience).

Anyway, another question Shenk didn't specifically address: Once you have some way to gauge the value of information, how active a process should the gauge-ing be? How much do we need to know about NAFTA? Should we ponder the value of various brands of ketchup or simply grab the first thing on the shelf?

Actively filtering--digging through information to find something of value--has an educative element. Sorting through stacks of newspaper can teach us how to detect bias, to place items in context, and to read better. But in other circumstances, you don't stand to gain anything from information in the way. Like the List Link Law [see sidebar], the extra sets of numbers and letters detract from rather than add to learning. To manage such information, you simply have to block some of it out.

At times, then, limiting information can have a decidedly positive effect. Shenk makes an excellent point along these lines when he argues that the function of schools is to limit rather than produce information: "Teachers and textbooks block out the vast majority of the world's information, allowing into the classroom only very small bits of information at any given time."

At each grade level, more information is revealed. My 7th grade biology teacher, Mr. Learch, used to actually joke about this. "When you guys get to high school, you're going to call me a liar," he'd say, explaining that the categories and rules we were learning weren't entirely true, that the reality was a lot more complicated. To get the point across, though, he had to oversimplify. And to sort of make amends, he had a freestanding offer to give anyone who could prove him wrong extra credit. A great teacher.

masked man One final question: How does the infoglut affect our concept of free speech? Shenk:

There is a special wrinkle in promulgating regulations for the information society, the First Amendment . . . 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.

This misses the point I wish he'd address. The most unsavory consequences of the infoglut aren't in the content of individual messages--isolated advertisements, an obscene comment, a false accusation. If you look at these individually, they can be taken apart and understood. No trauma. The problem is seen only by looking at the overall impact an unmitigated barrage of information has on public consciousness and debate. In an extreme case of information overload, there'd be so much noise that "free" speech would be irrelevant. So what if speech is "free" if no one can hear it?

Now before I get beat up for saying this, let me just say that free speech is a beautiful thing. I'm just saying that too much freedom is as bad as too little freedom. When everyone has too many rights, we end up infringing on each other's rights.

Whether you're talking about a public town council meeting or, say, a government public interest email list, there are limits placed on personal expressions--there are laws restricting libelous speech, speech that poses "clear and present danger," new, incredibly restrictive trademark defamation laws (regrettably), and (infoglut-conscious-sounding) laws against disturbing the peace.

Say a hundred citizens independently post Newt Gingrich fart jokes on alt.fcc.info.gov (or get up and tell Newt Gingrich fart jokes when it's their turn to talk at a town council meeting). What's the correct response to that? Should the personal right to expression be prioritized? The result then would be to fight free speech with more free speech ("shut up," "you're dumb," etc.); fight the inanity with more inanity, and never get around to discussing anything. Or should the right of the public to debate be prioritized, in which case the comedians would be silenced (or "censored")? Either way, freedoms get cut: You're either infringing on personal right of expression or the public's right to debate.

I don't have any brilliant ideas for getting out of this (for some excellent insights, read Owen Fiss's The Irony of Free Speech), just a comment: The freedom of speech isn't the only thing that matters but the value of speech as well. Bill Clinton, PepsiCo, an assembly line worker, and I may all have free speech in a sense; but a larger, more important issue is how these forms of speech acquire value.

And what's true for speech is true for other sorts of information. That is, we need to examine values--and value systems--if we want to make any sense at all of our insanely overinformed world. David Shenk would probably agree, but I suppose that would take another book to find out.

SUGGESTED READING

"Informing Ourselves To Death" a transcript of a speech by Neil Postman, is a good intro to the infoglut, and if you like that, you should read a couple of Postman's books--Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1992) and Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985).

No Sense of Place: The Impact of Electronic Media on Social Behavior,by Joshua Meyrowitz (1985). The densest of the lot; made me dizzy for days. Excellent. Read it twice, after Four Arguments.

The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, by Theodore Roszack (1986). Twenty bucks says Shenk read this one.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television , by Jerry Mander (1978). Mander is a hardliner, no doubt; a former ad guy with a serious Luddite bent. But you don't need to live in a cave (or want to) to get a lot out of this classic. Easy to read and smart.