Wednesday 16 February 2011

Data Smog

Finished February 16
Data Smog: surviving the information glut by David Shenk
This book has been on my "to read" list for many years and, noticing it in the library, I decided to tackle it. For a book written 14 years ago, it is surprisingly relevant today. If anything, the smog has gotten worse.
The book illustrates the "laws of data smog" and discusses some ways to tackle the problem.
Here are the laws, with some explanation:
1. Information, once rare and cherished like caviar, is now plentiful and taken for granted like potatoes.
This one is pretty self explanatory. Information, or data, comes to us from many sources through many mediums, with information overload replacing information scarcity as a problem. Information is not knowledge and needs to be considered in context and as part of a bigger picture.
2. Silicon circuits evolve much more quickly than human genes.
The power of technology has grown more quickly than our ability to process it. We are overwhelmed and have trouble dealing with the deluge. ADD is on the rise, along with cardiovascular issues, vision issues, and confusion. This leads to impaired judgment and overconfidence. We have grown dependent on technology and it has become like a drug we rely on.
3. Computers are neither human nor humane.
Technology has unexpected consequences (kind of like kudzu) and we are losing control to the machines that were supposed to serve us.
4. Putting a computer in every classroom is like putting an electric power plan in every home.
Computers help access are deliver large amounts of information quickly. They are not filters, but pumps. They can be useful tools, but are not a substitute for learning. Measurement of factual knowledge of various groups from schoolchildren to adults has shown that we know less about the world we live in than we used to, not more.
5. What they sell is not information technology, but information anxiety.
This is the sales call to upgrade to new technologies constantly. The faster and faster pace takes hold of us are instead of helping us be more efficient places more expectations on us.We are forever playing catch-up.
6. Too many experts spoil the clarify.
The opportunity of immense amounts of information allows groups to manipulate and spin data to prove pretty much any point of view. With so much expert opinion, determining which ones are reliable becomes more and more difficult.
7. All high-stim roads lead to Times Square.
It is no longer difficult to get your message out, but finding a receptive audience can be a problem. It takes more to get our attention, and that has led to more extreme efforts to get that attention (shock jocks, trash TV, excessive violence, extreme rhetoric, noisier advertising are all part of this). Everything is a crisis that demands immediate attention and we become jaded and less caring.
8. Birds of a feather flock virtually together.
This is nichification, the more and more specialized places where people of like minds can come together. Instead of information leading to more communication and discourse among people from different backgrounds and with different perspectives, there is more fragmentation and less understanding. Less information is truly shared.
9. The electronic town hall allows for speedy communication and bad decision-making.
People have more of a voice, but less ability to self-govern. Instead of government being leaders of the people, they respond to surveys and research on what people want and respond to that. The government ends up being followers to citizens that don't understand the full nature of the problems that are being faced.
10. Equifax is watching.
Personal privacy has become harder to maintain as information on our habits obtained from merchants, government, and other sources is more easy for others to obtain. 
11. Beware stories that dissolve all complexity.
The good story, whether selective, exaggerated or wrong, spreads quickly and without barriers around the globe. This can have great effect to individuals, companies, and even countries that get caught in these apocryphal stories.
12. On the information highway, most roads bypass journalists.
Because it is easier to disseminate information without going through traditional media, anyone can send out information and the average person is less able to assess the quality and factual basis of the information given. This leads to misinformation, misunderstanding and more confidence in less knowledge. The age of the news bite, without the education needed to analyze what it means to us is ultimately less relevant.
13. Cyberspace is Republican.
Technology favours the ideals of libertarian, free-market Republicans towards a decentralized society with little regulation and public infrastructure. This utopia is always long-term with little attention paid to the short-term costs to society.

This book is still extremely relevant and provides much food for thought on how to change the flow of information to make it work for us in a healthier and more helpful way.

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