Review of Data Smog

Data Smog, Surviving the Information Glut
David Shenk

Reviewed by Nick Christenson,

March 31, 1998

As with the printing press, radio, television, and other new media that has influenced the course of human history, the Internet brings with it a tide of change that will continue to affect every one of us. As with all media before it, some of these changes will be beneficial, and some will not. One thing we do know is that changes in the way we live have already occurred, and we're only seeing the tip of the iceberg. We have a choice. We can either attempt to comprehend what these changes mean so theat we can deal with them in a healthy manner, or we can ignore them. Data Smog makes an attempt to qualify what some of the negative changes might be and to provide some suggestions on how we might cope with them.

It seems to me that the book makes three central propositions as the basis for its argument. The first is that a new medium places considerable demands on the people who access it, that a medium is almost a primal force of nature. It will go where it will and do what it intends to do, and that the idea that human beings control a medium just because we use it is in some way analogous to thinking that we control the weather because we grow crops. The second proposition is that few people understand how the changes that the vast quantities of information available negatively affects their lives, but that our lives have been profoundly affected by new technology. The third proposition is that significant problems could (and do) manifest themselves within each individual and society as a whole, although steps can be taken to educate the public and come to terms with the situation at hand.

Shenk makes compelling arguments to support these propositions. He draws on the work of media luminaries such as Marshall McLuhan and Neil Postman to set up the background for his arguments. While on occasion I some of his claims to be a little hyperbolic, on the whole he presents a compelling set of reasons as to why we should think that there might be a problem. To his credit, he questions the path that our data society is on without being a Luddite, since it is through his direct experience that he has come to understand the new technology that he cautions us about. His notions are concise, well thought out, and complete.

I believe that most folks who have spent any time working in the information industry, which probably includes most of the readers of this review, will at worst be sympathetic with many of Shenk's arguments. It's likely that too much of what he says will ring true to avoid making us rather uncomfortable. Certainly, I found this to be the case.

There have been several attempts to write the contrarian view of the rise of information technology as a social phenomenon. This is the first one that I've read that communicates these arguments with enough clarity and substance for me to really take them seriously. This is the book I think Silicon Snake Oil wanted to be. Although I don't agree with everything Data Smog has to say, I believe that it is healthy to reach out and try to appreciate a viewpoint that challenges how we are living and what we are doing with our lives. For those of us working in the information industry, Data Smog is the best statement I've seen of this perspective.

Even though Shenk's grand suggestions on how society as a whole might better come to terms with the glut of information that is available in today's world are, in my opinion, unlikely to be implemented on a grand scale, there's a lot here we can learn as individuals about how to cope just within our own lives. I've seen a lot of the symptoms and manifestations of problems that the author describes within myself and the folks with which I interact. Perhaps by coming to terms with these issues readers can improve their own lives. Even if the book does nothing but force us to question how we live in this data rich environment, it will have served a useful purpose.


It seems that all we hear is accolades about the revolution of information that is occurring around us. As with all things, a more balanced view is probably more appropriate. Data Smog is the best presentation of a cautionary view of today's information society that I've read, and those trying to balance their view of the effect the today's technology may have on themselves and society will probably benefit from this book.