Data smog : surviving the information glut

by David Shenk

Hardcover, 1997




San Francisco, Calif. : Harper Edge, 1997.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jpsnow
While I actually do embrace my profession, works such as this re-inforce my self-determined need to have a simpler view of the life; that is, to be able live without technology if required. Although he never quite displays his own political or philosophical stance, he does build a very clear case against the continual surge of fragmentation in our daily lives and the onslaught of technology anxiety. In just a few pages, he discusses psychological research involving the tracking of eye movements while a subject flips through evocative photes, a similar study involving brain waves, store tracking of purchases, and the plan for ETS to sell academic reference checks. The examples were scary, but even more convincing were his conclusions regarding the message (McLuhan) of the newest media. Our society is becoming less able to concentrate on one topic, requiring a "two-by-four" effect to get attention, which doesn't last long anyway. He especially deplores the effect of that trend on journalism, though taking it too far in disclaiming the value of internet news because if bypasses traditional journalism (I note MSNBC). Shenk also writes about the movement for true democracy through on-line voting -- he's right, be afraid. In addition to proposing several legislative steps, he also advocates a very basic "downteching" to combat, or at least minimize, the unavoidable problem.… (more)
LibraryThing member ABVR
Data Smog (the concept) is an elegant and useful addition to the language of the Information Age. Data Smog (the book) is an intermittently useful but decidedly inelegant addition to the swelling ranks of books about the perils of the Information Age. David Shenk argues that, although data is good, more data is not necessarily better and too much data is definitely bad. The book works best when it develops parts of that argument in depth and tries to work out their social and cultural implications. It would have worked considerably better if that was all it tried to do in its 250-odd pages. Instead, Shenk seems determined to catalog every major ill of the Information Age: spam, identity theft, the erosion of privacy, the decline of online civility, the fragmentation of the common culture, and the reduction of news and politics to sound bites. Packing all that in 250 pages takes some doing, and inevitably means leaving something out. Among the things that fall by the wayside are historical context, supporting evidence, and any serious consideration of the benefits of the Information Age.

Shenk never seriously considers the possibility that the changes he is discussing were underway before the advent of computers and might be driven at least in part by other technological and social forces. The advent of cheap printing in the late 19th century made it possible for 1900 New York to have a dozen or more daily papers aimed at distinct audiences, and the newsstands of the 1930s to have scores of pulp fiction magazines on a dozen different themes (romance, sea stories, flying stories, horror stories, straight detective, true detective, sexy detective, and so on). Computers may have exacerbated market fragmentation, but they hardly created it. He is similarly sketchy in considering the ways that the Information Age and its superabundance of data have benefitted society: instant access to once-obscure information and the chance to form virtual communities organized around common interests, to name just two.

Ironically for a book about the problems created by a superabundance of data, Data Smog is surprisingly short on concrete supporting evidence. Shenk argues mostly from anecdotes, whether from his own life or the lives of friends or colleagues or people he interviewed. The anecdotes are generally relevant and frequently fascinating, but this style of argument works best in a one-page op-ed column than in a 250-page book. Shenk's preference for argument-by-anecdote (his anecdotage?) either reflects or reinforces his tendency to flit from one topic to another. He throws out one argument after another, sprinkles a few well-chosen anecdotes in its wake, and moves on. The reader is left (but not given the time) to work out whether there's anything to the argument.

Data Smog is, at this writing, nearly twenty years old: a technological eternity, given its subject. Readers interested in the social impact of the computer might want to check it out of the library or looked for it used, but its days as a must-read work have long since passed.
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