An older book from 2007 worth reading: Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut by David Shenk, which discusses information overload and the impact of technology on culture. I found the laws of data smog particularly intriguing:
The Laws of Data Smog
- Information, once rare and cherished like caviar, is now plentiful and taken for granted like potatoes.
- Silicon circuits evolve much more quickly than human genes.
- Computers are neither human nor humane.
- Putting a computer in every classroom is like putting an electric power plant in every home.
- What they sell is not information technology, but information anxiety.
- Too many experts spoil the clarity.
- All high-stim roads lead to Times Square.
- Birds of a feather flock virtually together.
- The electronic town hall allows for speedy communication and bad decisionmaking.
- Equifax is watching.
- Beware stories that dissolve all complexity.
- On the information highway, most roads bypass journalists.
- Cyberspace is Republican.
Not sure I agree with all of them though. Absolute freedom to me is a given.
But here are his promising remedies:
Antidote 1: Be Your Own Filter
The first remedy is simply to identify the clutter and start sweeping it away. Most of us have excess information in our lives, distracting us, pulling us away from our prioritize and from a much-desired tranquility. If we stop just for a moment to look (and listen) around us, we will begin to notice a series of data streams we’d be better off without, including some distractions we pay handsomely for.
Antidote 2: Be Your Own Editor
After learning how to filter input, one must shift concern to the equally important task of limiting output. Amidst the data smog, a new kind of social responsibility has emerged — an obligation to be succinct. Just as we’ve had to curtail our toxic emissions in the physical world, the information glut demands that we all be more economical about what we say, write, publish, broadcast, and post online. People who recklessly pump redundant or obfuscatory information into society are the information age equivalents of the miscreants who open their car door at a stop light to dump trash onto the street.
Antidote 3: Simplify
Between input and output, there is life itself. How does one live a meaningful life in an ever-more complex and distracting world? One helpful ingredient, I’ve found, is to embrace a new paradigm of simplicity.
It is often said that we are on the cusp of a whole new age when intelligent machines will take over much of the work we do. I suspect that just the opposite may be true — that we are about to comprehend the true limitations of machines. Once we realize that information technology truly cannot replace human experience, that as it increases the available information it also helps devalue the meaning of each piece of information, we will be on the road to reasserting our dominance over technology.
Antidote 4: De-nichify
How to change our electronic Tower of Babel into a modern Agora? The answer is easy, though the solution is not: We need to talk to one another. Recall Bill Bradley’s challenge: “When was the last time you talked about race with someone of a different race? If the answer is never, you’re part of the problem.”
As we reach across cultural boundaries and pursue interdisciplinary studies, we are pursuing the best kind of education — not just learning how to become more efficient at a specialized task, but how to interact with the rest of humanity. These sorts of pursuits enable us to embrace the joys of education as the best possible antidote to data smog. Education is anti-glut. It is the harnessing of information, organizing it into knowledge and memory. Education also breeds a healthy skepticism, and will help consumers fend off manipulative marketing tactics. Education is the one thing we can’t get overloaded with. The more of it, the better.
Antidote 5: Don’t Forsake Government; Help Improve It
Finally, for collective fixes more appropriately enacted on behalf of all society, we must call on that awkward but thoroughly necessary beast, government.
Yes, government. Federal initiatives are badly needed, mostly because technology policy is too important to be surrendered to chance or to the wealthiest corporations. The cyber-libertarian community has made anti-government rhetoric a fashionable part of the information revolution, mostly in response to a lot of very thoughtless federal legislation. After a particularly stupid law was signed by President Clinton in 1996 — the Communications Decency Act, which aimed to excessively curb speech online — leading cyber thinker John Perry Barlow issued a “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which rashly proclaimed the Net to be its own world, not a functioning part of conventional society.
Respectfully, I dissent. The Net is not literally a new world vested with its own sovereignty; it is a new and exciting facet of society, created and subsidized by a democratic government that, for all of its well-publicized bungling and wastefulness, actually works pretty well. Barlow is absolutely correct in describing cyberspace as a very different organism from our physical world. Ultimately, though, the former must fall under the jurisdiction of the latter.