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Data Smog by David Shenk

Edition: Paperback
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It is said that information wants to be free, but most days on the net, don't you feel that all it wants to do is be in your face every last minute?

Did you ever feel yourself go "tilt" when a search engine retrieves 30,000 possible hits to your query?

Or downloads 50 pieces of new e-mail?

Perhaps some relief will come when you know the Laws of Data Smog that frame this book, among them: Silicon circuits evolve much more quickly than human genes; Equifax is watching; Beware of stories that dissolve all complexity; Too many experts spoil the clarity. David Shenk is certainly going to stir controversy with his conclusions, especially that government should get involved in reducing the information glut. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Library Journal

In this engaging look at some of the side effects of the Information Age, Shenk convincingly argues that the reality of "data smog," or information overload, is surely leading to more societal ills than anyone else cares to admit. A fellow emeritus of the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University and commentator for public radio's "Marketplace," Shenk homes in on technology's darker side, exposing a mutating society that clearly favors speed above content, image above meaning,... Book Description

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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 Overwhelmed by Information? This book might help, March 24, 2003

  Reviewer: Glen Engel-Cox (see more about me) from Washington, DC USA
Are we drowning in a sea of information? Blinded by a smog of data? That's Shenk's premise, and I have to admit I'm in somewhat of an agreement with him. It's either agree with him, or admit that I'm getting old and can't keep up anymore. We are of an age, however--he relates how his first computer was a Macintosh in 1984. He talks about becoming involved in the early days of digital communication (back then, there was Compu$erve, the $ource, and local BBSes). He went on the reporting route, while I took the technology route. Now we both feel surrounded by too much stuff, data being the prime component. Shenk blames it on the new medium, whereas I think that maybe it is the nature of our general society.

Don't get me wrong. I love data. Databases are your friend, and they've certainly been mine, as I make my living off maintaining them, writing interfaces for them, and creating reports from them. The problem seems to go back to something much older than the Internet, but to the early days of computing. There is a term, not in much use today, called GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Too much data being stored in databases these days was dumped there, without editing, without sorting, without review. Just because modern tools allow you access to data in these storage areas better, faster, and cheaper, does not mean that data poorly stored has any more value. I am sure many of you have run into a case where the computer was supposed to help you with a task, but instead it just seems that you were able to process more data, not necessarily do the job quicker or easier. More data, as Shenk discusses, is not a solution. Better data would be, but no one is providing quality.

And this is where I say the problem is not the technology but the society. Americans have a hard time with quality. We give it lip service, but what we really want is quantity. The tagline for Godzilla, "Size matters," was perfect for us. Yes, we want more. We want a biggie fries and a biggie shake. We want to Super Size that Extra Value Meal. We purchase Range Rovers and the only range we rove is the median when there's a traffic jam. Let's go to CostCo and get the five-pound jar of spaghetti sauce, even though we only eat spaghetti at home once every two months. We'll take 52 channels of crap on the cable, although only four are worth watching. Bigger, we imply, is always better. Our hardware store here has a tagline that says they have "more of everything."

Shenk says, more is less. You are a limited creature; you can only handle a limited amount of input. Why not get some quality input for a change? I like the idea, and I have to admit that Jill and I were already working towards this goal before our move. Jill calls it "divesting ourselves of the material culture," but mainly it's just getting rid of stuff. Why did we have 700 CDs? We couldn't listen to them all, and hadn't listened to more than 5% in the last year. Why did we have 2000 books--did we intend to reference or reread all of them? I have been keeping bank and billing records for the last 15 years? Why? We cleaned out the closet, evaluating the things we really needed to meet our goals. And it isn't that much. Why did we have all that stuff. Because we were being good little members of the consumer society.

This simplification of the life style is one of Shenk's answers to Data Smog. The others include being your own filter (limit your inputs--cut off the TV, unsubscribe from those lists [well, except from mine]), being your own editor (take your time to understand what you read and hear, don't settle for sound bites), become a generalist (Robert Heinlein said, "Specialization is for insects."), and, lastly, take part in government rather than forsaking it. These antidotes are strong medicine towards regaining control of your life. Shenk probably didn't mean this as a self-help book, but if the tool pouch fits....


 Beware the Smog!, April 19, 2000

  Reviewer: Campbell Kirkman from Port Angeles, WA
Data Smog presents the good, the bad, and the ugly of what the Information Age is all about. For those of us on the fringes of the technology revolution, it is an eye-opener. Shenk shares many personal anecdotes to demonstrate his points. His clever use of language in "The Laws of Data Smog", chapter titles and description make it an enjoyable read. However, it's a bit hard to swallow his solutions, coming from an admitted information junkie. While he suggests ways we can reduce data smog, he doesn't quite succeed in convincing us that he has cleaned up his own act.

Shenk starts out with an appropriately brief account of the evolution of the information age, to explain how we got to the point of data smog. He clearly shows how information overload is creating more confusion, more stress, and decreased attention. His argument that technology threatens personal privacy is well-supported and currently a hot-button issue. His claim that the development of niches from sophisticated data analysis will splinter our culture is not quite as convincing. He has to be commended, though, for taking a stand against the idea that technology always means progress.

As an educator I had to take issue with the analogy he makes in "The Fourth Law of Data Smog: Putting a computer in every classroom is like putting an electric power plant in every home." I would argue that computers are a vital addition to the classroom, if used appropriately. If they are only used for skill and drill, then yea, they don't give much advantage over paper and pencil worksheets. But when computers are used for researching, communicating with others, and making projects, they are a nice tool that adds to the educational experience.

In addition, computers increase teacher productivity immeasureably. As always, the focus needs to be on what is best for student learning... technology provides more tools that give more options for how we teach. Computers will be a major part of life in the future and we need to teach kids the skills they need to use them properly.


 The good and the bad of information, November 7, 2001

  Reviewer: josee Vincent from Hawaii
David Shenk's examination on the information flow is somewhat sobering. Shenk has a good grasp on the major problems resulting from too much information. From moral decay to highlighted social distinctions, Shenks dissect all negative aspect of the information age.

Weather directly or indirectly, at the end of the day, everybody is affected. His book is divided into four parts where the first three emphasize the problems and consequences of excess information. The last part gives antidotes to be able to deal with the the consequences. In general, the book is very accurate and makes you think a lot. However, I only gave three stars to the book's rating because I felt that the book was a little depressive. I understand that sometimes the truth is not always pink but Shenk wrote in such a way as to depress the readers. Facts are one thing but personel opinions should at least sound a little more positive. In all, I'm glad I read the book but would not recommend this book to any of my friends.


 Data Smog filled with Good Information, October 19, 2001

  Reviewer: Mark S. Hubbard (see more about me) from Lihue, HI United States
Mr. Shenk does a fine job of informing us of the potential pitfalls of the information explosion. He uses excellent examples of how too much information stuns some people, makes others tune out all information or disbelieve most information, prevents others from discerning from true and false information, creates in some people a constant anxiety that they are not up to speed, or drive some people to seek the simplest solution from an ever more complicated world.
Mr. Shenk also provides several rational antidotes to this data smog. From limiting one's access to information, using care in output amount and distribution, to working with government to control data smog, Mr. Shenk provides reasonable solutions.
Since the book only focuses on the bad side of the information glut, one needs to be careful when reading the book not to forget the huge benefits in productivity and standard of living that are achieved with increased access to information. 

 What Might Have Been, February 1, 2001

  Reviewer: Michael Gallipo (see more about me) from Clifton Park, NY United States
I am disappointed that I end up rating David Shenk's book so low because there are some very interesting ideas at work here.

His rejection of technology as a panacea for all of humanity's problems is very accurate. Also his distinction between mere information and real knowledge is something that all people should wrestle with. And his analysis that public figures and interest groups rely increasingly on overheated rhetoric rings true to anyone who watched Jesse Jackson compare every current event to Selma or who reads the latest enviro-disaster headline.

But despite those positives there are several major flaws which mar this book. First and most important is that Mr. Shenk, as many modern social critics of both the left and right often do, falls prey to nostalgia. He seems to yearn for the golden age of American discourse, but when precisely was that? He worries that consensus runs "thinner and thinner every year." Would he be refering to the previous political consensus that brought us the Civil War, William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold, the imposition and repeal of Prohibition, the McCarthy hearings or the long struggle for civil rights? In fact, I would argue that our differences are much smaller than they used to be (even if we argue about them more loudly). As an example, in the recently concluded election, Bush and Gore argued over whose prescription drug plan was better, not whether there should be one at all.

Mr. Shenk also decries the growing specialization of both publications and marketing. But were we really better served when a larger percentage of the nation read Life magazine? And is marketing that allows businesses to provide advertising that is more relevant to each person really bad? I personally enjoy seeing the suggestions that this site provides of books I might be interested in. But I am not powerless to resist that advertising as Mr. Shenk seems to fear.

The other major sin, at least in my opinion, is Mr. Shenk's knee-jerk liberalism. This became increasingly obvious whether in his disparaging treatment of President Reagan or Republicans in general or the idea that corporations are somehow, if not quite evil, at least morally corrupting. And his depiction of journalists as paragons of objectivity and reason is laughable to anyone who watches the liberal bias of papers such as the New York Times or the conservative bias of the Washington Times.