Books : reviews

David Shenk.
Data Smog: surviving the information glut.
Abacus. 1997

rating : 6 : unfinishable
review : 4 June 2000

Shenk, self-confessed computer junkie, points out that the computer revolution has not made us all richer, rather we are drowning in (mostly useless) information. Junk mail, junk faxes, junk email, more TV channels, more and louder ads, ability to access documents faster than we could possibly read them, junk statistics, junk politics.

One interesting point he makes about the change in the way we get information: the way memorability is tied to context, to the surrounding parts of an experience where we saw or heard something. But now those other parts are all the same: the telephone and the computer screen bring us a huge variety of information, but the rest of the context stays the same. And so things are less memorable, less recallable. But this should not be an argument for doing away with the computer; it should be an argument for providing better context.

Shenk's particular worry is the junk politics. He describes how the majority of the population have little knowledge about, and little interest in, politics. He cites the usual statistics of the shockingly small proportion of people who know who holds certain senior government positions. Personally, I think this apathy is a sign of a healthy democracy. It means people are not incensed about the way the country is being run, and so they can get on with the important stuff: living their lives. Only politicians think politics is important. It's one of those things we don't bother about until something goes wrong: like car engine maintenance. Yet when something does go wrong, the masses are quick to point it out until it's fixed. And then we go back to living our real lives.

Shenk is also concerned about the flood of junk statistics, where various think tanks can prove anything with their data, so no-one knows what to believe. My personal take on all the life-style and other studies that show one thing one day, and one the next, is rather more cynical, however: if the effect is that hard to spot, it must be small enough that it is probably not worth worrying about too much, in a world where other effects are so much greater.

Technology revolutions always leave some people decrying the fall of the old order, and not noticing the rise of the new. What we have now is a transition period where people are learning, and some failing, to be discriminating in their inputs. [I once noticed how powerful filters could be when I glanced in a shop window and could not see what it was selling. The reason: it was selling 'Special Offer' and 'Sale' signs -- which I had filtered out!] As people develop filters, there is a frantic attempt by the old guard to pierce those filters by ever increasing pressure, trying to push through them. As Shenk points out, this leads to a spiralling arms race. But we can't solve this by going backwards, only by going 'sideways'. So I think the consumer is changing, filtering out all the "me! me! me!" and looking only for what they are interested in. And that's not politics, except for a few. It's gardening, or line-dancing, or motorbikes, or hill walking, or music, or football, or science fiction, or cooking, or researching family trees, or cricket, or going down the pub, or computers, or collecting juke boxes, or... just about anything, really.

Maybe Shenk covers some of these points later in his book. But I found his rather journalistic sound-bite style of yet another tale of The Decline and Fall of American Civilisation a reflection of some of the very aspects he was decrying. I've developed a variety of data smog filters myself over the years. Data Smog did not get through them; I gave up at page 108.