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  • ISBN10: 0060187018
  • ISBN13: 9780060187019
  • Hardcover
  • 288 pages
  • HarperCollins Publishers

Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut
by David Shenk

Reviewed by A. Bowdoin Van Riper

Rating: 2 out of 5

  • Posted 14 years ago
  • Viewed 1830 times, 1 comment
  • Average user rating: (2/5)

A Good Idea, Poorly Developed

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. Data Smog 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 soundbites. 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 newstands 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.

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 tendancy 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.

Shenk acknowledges that the Information Age and its superabundance of data have benefited society in certain ways, but rarely goes any deeper than that. After decrying the internet's fragmentation of people into narrowly focused communities, for example, he grudgingly admits that the existence of such online communities might make things better for (my examples, not his) the only lesbian in West Overshoe, Iowa or the only Charles Bukowski fan in Lubbock, Texas. Period. He's absolutely right, but why stop with the social benefits that online communities provide to isolated individuals? What about the benefits to society of letting all those isolated individuals pool their mental resources and work together on some new project? What about the value of having pre-established communities of experts on thousands of topics, like the world's best library reference desk?

Data Smog concludes with 20 pages of solutions to the problems it's spent 230 pages outlining. Read in that context, they feel like tools for someone marching off to a valiant but doomed struggle: Take your name off junk mail lists, turn off the TV, don't mindlessly forward email, and so on. All good advice, to be sure, but advice better suited to blunting the worst effects of a double-edged techological revolution than to heading off the socio-cultural catastrophe that Shenk seems to see coming.

Thematically, Data Smog belongs on the same shelf as Neil Postman's Technopoly, David Brin's The Transparent Society and Cliff Stoll's Silicon Snake Oil (which, incidentally, includes a far more sophisticated discussion of "upgrade mania" and "feature creep" than the one that Shenk offers). Neither its content nor its style is in their league, however. 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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Chinsmith says:

A great review... I feel like I've read (and rejected) most of the important parts of the book!

#1 Posted 14 years ago

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