Was I right about the dangers of the Internet in 1997?

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July 25 2007 3:34 PM

The E Decade

Was I right about the dangers of the Internet in 1997?

Data Smog

Ten years ago, HarperCollins pronounced me a "cyber-pundit" and sent me on to public radio and the Microsoft campus to explain my new book, Data Smog. The book had not been conceived as a direct response to the Internet, but there was no point swimming against the zeitgeist. In mid-'97, e-mail was reaching into homes in middle America, and the Web was hurtling past its early-adopter phase. (Slate was a mere toddler, not yet 1.) AOL was circulating millions of "Join Us!" floppy disks, trumping its new flat-rate policy (in the Times, one financial analyst called that "the ultimate degradation" of information value). No one knew for sure where things were heading, but there was considerable curiosity, plenty of greed, and some unease. The information revolution already had dozens of articulate optimists. For talk-show producers and beat reporters, I became the go-to skeptic.

It was a strange role for an old Apple IIe geek who had been obsessively e-mailing since the tumbleweed days of "BBS" electronic bulletin boards (well!dshenk@lll-winken.llnl.gov). I was about as much of a neo-Luddite as I was a 19th-century farmboy. But while doing research in Washington into public political knowledge, I started to realize that our postindustrial society was in the midst of a true phase shift—from information scarcity to information glut. Even for a culture with a basic faith in human progress and technology, such a transformation clearly presented serious personal and political challenges. In Data Smog, I tried to suss out the most glaring potholes and suggest a few useful detours. "Something marvelous has been happening to humankind," I wrote in the book's preface. "Information is moving faster and becoming more plentiful, and people everywhere are benefiting from this change. But there's a surprising postscript to this story. When it comes to information, it turns out that one can have too much of a good thing."

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Rereading the book 10 years later has been gratifying and humbling. A number of its ideas are, I think, more relevant than ever, while other passages come off as exaggerated or shortsighted. The premise still holds, and thankfully no longer requires much convincing: In our work, home, and social lives, we are saturated with data and stimulus. While our grandparents were limited by access to information and speed of communication, we are restricted largely by our ability to wade through it all. As with calories, we must work constantly to whittle down, prioritize, and pick out the choice nutritional bits. If we don't monitor our information diets carefully, our cerebral lives quickly become bloated. Attention gets diverted (sometimes dangerously so); conversations and trains-of-thought interrupted; skepticism short-circuited; stillness and silence all but eliminated. Probably the greatest overall threat is that so many potentially meaningful experiences can easily be supplanted by merely thrilling experiences.

I was far from the first person to recognize this. Psychologists have warned about challenges from information overload for decades. Now, though, we have studies demonstrating what's actually happening. The brain can toggle back and forth pretty well, but it simply cannot concentrate on two things at one time. So, the more quantity we try to manage, at increasing speeds, the more quality we find ourselves trading away. To be sure, we all need interruptions from time to time, but unnecessary distractions can end up costing quite a bit. We now know, for example, that it takes an experienced computer user an average of 15 minutes to return to "serious mental tasks" after answering e-mail or instant messages. Add it all up, economists say, and you have an (admittedly gross) estimate of interruptions costing the U.S. $650 billion annually.

Reading these new studies, I can't help but think back to a very special book review, from Salon (yes, authors read and reread reviews; yes, they harbor grudges). The review actually began:

In the course of conceiving this paragraph, I checked my e-mail three times and fired off four responses. I took a phone call, visited a few Web sites—simultaneously, I might add, on two computers—and perused some posts on an online bulletin board. I snuck a peek at the latest news wires, gobbled some take-out Thai food, read a press release. I did this all while switching back and forth between two Internet radio stations, which I listened to through headphones.

This multitasking reviewer went on to express extreme skepticism about relatively modest warnings about our speedy new electronic world from myself, Douglas Rushkoff, and James Gleick. The frustrating thing was, she seemed unable to view the matter as anything but an either/or proposition: Either these technologies are delivering progress, or they're delivering trouble. The more interesting reality, of course, is that—as with cars, planes, and nuclear power—progress and trouble often come intertwined. We are blessed to have these extraordinary tools, which empower us, entertain us, educate us, and powerfully connect us to friends, family, and strangers. But these same tools also threaten to fill up our every waking moment with speedy information, drawing us away from slow, unfragmented conversation and contemplation.

Since no one can truly avoid data smog these days except by living off the grid, we all have to develop effective techniques to parry it. One dumb thing I did in Data Smog was to insist on the primacy of "downteching" and nontechnical solutions. As a matter of stubborn ideology, I pooh-poohed e-mail filters and other smart agents, declaring that they "will never be adequate substitutes for our own manual filtering." People should be their own filters, I insisted. Well, it sounded good in my head, but remarks like that only encouraged an unhelpful split between the wired life and the unplugged life. What I want—what we all want, I think—is a healthy combination. Ten years and about 50,000 inbox e-mails later, it's pretty obvious to me that smart filters have a vital role to play.

The smartest, grandest filter of them all, of course, is Google. Like many people a decade ago, I was utterly blind to the possibilities of a search engine that could get smarter every hour by tracking not only our questions but also where we went to find answers. Google cuts through the dreck in astonishing ways. It's one thing to spit back the current temperature in Maputo, Mozambique; it's quite another to point me to highly relevant papers on the social implications of epigenetics. Ten years ago, search responses weren't nearly so efficient or satisfying. Over time, Google has raised the search bar so high that today we express surprise when Google doesn't immediately deliver just what we're looking for.

Google is just the most obvious example of the extraordinary ingenuity coming from hardware, software, and content creators. By and large, I am guilty of having vastly underestimated these people in my book. I was pretty harsh on the tech industry, accusing it rather glibly of being more interested in upgrade payments than true ingenuity. "Since Microsoft, like all the others, makes most of its profits on upgrades," I snorted in Chapter 5, "the real product isn't hardware or software, but information anxiety." Throwing some light on upgrade economics wasn't a bad impulse, but it makes me cringe now to realize I didn't make this a more nuanced critique.