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|As Crane Brinton points out in his classic book The Anatomy of
Revolution, power tends to oscillate among the conservative, moderate,
and radical elements of society following a political upheaval. Much the
same may be said of the social revolution brought about by the Internet.
David Shenk’s Data Smog represents a moderation in thought about the information revolution, being neither so effusive in its praise for the Internet as Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community nor so damning as Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil or Steve Talbott’s The Future Does Not Compute.
Shenk looks at the information revolution as a journalist; more specifically, as a journalist who has experienced “data smog” first hand. During the early days of his freelance writing career in the Washington, DC, area, he subscribed to the Federal News Service, which provided transcripts of political and cultural events. In a short time, Shenk was so overwhelmed by the service’s two pages per minute, three daily papers, and magazines that he had to unsubscribe from FNS. Similar stories of people who have suffered information overload are sprinkled throughout Data Smog, but the book is much more than a series of anecdotes.
In fact, Shenk warns the reader against anecdotes, or stories that attempt to remove all complexity from issues, in one of his “Laws of Data Smog”. The Laws aren’t principles as much as they are observations on the nature of the information revolution, but observations that challenge the assumptions behind many of the claims about information’s increasing accessibility.
For instance, one of Shenk’s Laws is that data smog is “Republican”, meaning that the information age works in favor of political and economic interests pushing for individualistic policies and minimal government. The dark side of the equation is brought forth in Tim May’s “Cryptoanarchist Manifesto”, which pushes for using cryptographic tools to bring down governments by making laws and tax codes unenforceable. While May’s piece makes interesting reading and a provocative point of departure, it is no more realistic than the proposals for direct democracy pushes by pundits like Tim Stryker.
Shenk ends Data Smog with a call for journalists to act as a “skeptical analytical buffer”, dispensing with immediacy and sensationalism and providing in-depth coverage, and a “pie in the sky” legislative agenda. Interestingly enough, his request that “[a]ll government documents should not only be accessible, but approachable” was echoed by President Clinton’s “simple language” proposal.
Data Smog is a step above the other cautionary literature featured in this section because the author offers the reader practical methods of reducing his or her personal information pollution. What’s more, Shenk’s time in Washington gives him valuable insight into what is possible from a policy making perspective, giving his recommendations substantial credibility.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.