Data Smog, David Shenk

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Data Smog: Surviving the Information Age, Revised and Updated, David Shenk, HarperEdge, 1997, ISBN 0-06-251551-9, $13.00, 256pp.

Are we drowning in a sea of information? Blinded by a smog of data? That’s David 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….

[Finished June 1998]

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