Nope, you're not imagining it--the tsunami of information pounding away at us is making all of us more anxious, less effective, and sometimes even sick. Knowing why is step one toward recovery

DATA SMOG

Information used to be as rare and precious as gold.

It is estimated that one weekday edition of today's New York Times contains more information than the average person in 17th-century England was likely to come across in an entire lifetime. Now information is so inexpensive and plentiful that most of it ends up being remaindered and shredded, as if it were worthless garbage. The first great paradox of the information glut is that we are becoming so information rich that we take much of what we have for granted.

Still, the concept of too much information seems odd and vaguely inhuman. That is because, in evolutionary-history terms, this weed in our information landscape has just sprouted--it is only about 50 years old.

Up until then, more information was almost always a good thing. For nearly 100,000 years leading up to this century, information technology had an unambiguous virtue as a means of sustaining and developing culture. Information and communications have made us steadily healthier, wealthier, more tolerant. Because of information, we understand more about how to overcome the basic challenges of life. Food is more abundant. Our physical structures are sturdier, more reliable. Our societies are more stable, as we have learned how to make political systems function. Our citizens are freer, thanks to a wide dissemination of information that has empowered the individual. Dangerous superstitions and false notions have been washed away: communicating quickly with people helps us overcome our fear of them and diminishes the likelihood of conflict.

Then, around the time of the first atomic bomb, something strange happened. We began to produce information much faster than we could process it. That had never happened before. For 100,000 years the three fundamental stages of the communications process--production, distribution, and processing--had been more or less in sync with one another. By and large, over our long history, people have been able to examine and consider information about as quickly as it could be created and circulated. That equipoise lasted through an astonishing range of communications media--the drum, the smoke signal, the cave painting, the town crier, the carrier pigeon, the newspaper, the photograph, the telegraph, the telephone, radio, and film.

But in the mid 20th century that graceful synchrony was abruptly knocked off track with the introduction of computers, microwave transmissions, television, and satellites. These hyperproduction and hyperdistribution mechanisms surged ahead of human processing ability.

In this way, in a very short span of natural history, we have vaulted from a state of information scarcity to one of information surplus--from drought to flood in the geological blink of an eye. In 1850, 4% of American workers handled information for a living; now most do, and information processing (as opposed to material goods) now accounts for more than half of the U.S. gross national product. Data have become more plentiful, are more speedily processed (computer processing speed has doubled every 2 years for the last 30 years), and are more dense. (From 1965 to 1995 the average network television advertisement shrank from 53.1 seconds to 25.4 seconds, and the average TV news sound bite shrank from 42.3 seconds to 8.3 seconds; over the same period the number of ads per network TV minute increased from 1.1 to 2.4.)

Information has also become a lot cheaper--to produce, to manipulate, to disseminate. All of that has made us information rich, empowering Americans with the blessings of applied knowledge. It has also, though, unleashed the potential for information gluttony.

Just as fat has replaced starvation as this nation's number one dietary concern, information overload has replaced information scarcity as an important new emotional, social, and political problem. With virtually no effort and for relatively little cost, we can capture as much information as we want.

With information production not only increasing but accelerating, there is no sign that processing will ever catch up. We have quite suddenly mutated into a radically different culture, a civilization that trades in and survives on stylized communication. And as we enjoy the many fruits of this burgeoning information civilization, we also have to learn to compensate for the new and permanent side effects of what sociologists, in an academic understatement, call a "message dense" society.

Audio buffs have long been familiar with the phrase signal-to-noise ratio. It is engineering parlance for measuring the quality of a sound system by comparing the amount of desired audio signal with the amount of unwanted noise leaking through. In the information age, signal-to-noise has also become a useful way to think about social health and stability. How much of the information in our midst is useful, and how much of it gets in the way? What is our signal-to-noise ratio? We know that the ratio has diminished of late and that the character of information has changed: as we have accrued more and more of it, information has emerged not only as a currency but also as a pollutant.

  • In 1971 the average American was targeted by at least 560 daily advertising messages. Twenty years later that number had risen sixfold, to 3,000 messages per day.
  • In the office, an average of 60% of each person's time is now spent processing documents.
  • Paper consumption per capita in the United States tripled from 1940 to 1980 (from 200 to 600 pounds) and tripled again from 1980 to 1990 (to 1,800 pounds). In the 1980s the use of third-class mail (for sending publications) grew 13 times faster than the population.
  • Two-thirds of business managers surveyed report tension with colleagues, loss of job satisfaction, and strained personal relationships as a result of information overload.
  • More than 1,000 telemarketing companies employ 4 million Americans and generate $650 billion in annual sales.

I call this unexpected, unwelcome part of our atmosphere "data smog," an expression for the noxious muck and druck of the information age. Data smog gets in the way; it crowds out quiet moments and obstructs much-needed contemplation. It spoils conversation, literature, and even entertainment. It thwarts skepticism, rendering us less sophisticated as consumers and citizens. It stresses us out.

Data smog is not just the pile of unsolicited catalogs and spam arriving daily in our home and electronic mailboxes. It is also information that we pay handsomely for, that we crave--the seductive, mesmerizing quick-cut television ads and the 24-hour up-to-the-minute news flashes. It is the faxes we request as well as the ones we don't, it is the misdialed numbers and drippy sales calls we get during dinnertime, but it is also the Web sites we eagerly visit before and after dinner, the pile of magazines we pore through every month, and the dozens of channels we flip through whenever we get a free moment.

The blank spaces and silent moments in life are fast disappearing. Mostly because we have asked for it, media are everywhere. Televisions, telephones, radios, message beepers, and an assortment of other modern communication and navigational aids are now as ubiquitous as roads and tennis shoes--anywhere humans can go, all forms of media now follow: onto trains, planes, and automobiles; into hotel bathrooms; along jogging paths and mountain trails; on bikes and boats.

We've heard a lot lately about the moral decay evident in our entertainment packaging. But it isn't so much the content of the messages that should worry us as much their ubiquity, and it is critical to realize that information doesn't have to be unwanted and unattractive to be harmful.

On the Verge of an Epidemic
Perhaps the greatest story of acquisition and regret is that of the mythical Greek Prometheus, whose punishment for stealing fire and passing it down to human beings was to be chained naked to a pillar where each day a vulture tore out his liver. The liver was divinely replenished each night, and the vulture would return to eat it out again the following day. In his dialogue Protagoras, Plato puts this story into more contemporary perspective. It wasn't just fire that Prometheus took. It was techne, the knowledge of how to make things. The moral is, the price of technological know-how includes a pound of flesh.

Today the vultures still feed, occasioning a billion-dollar market for antacids. For all our abundance, ours is also an age of unprecedented stress, strain, headaches, and digestive problems--so much so, in fact, that tension relief has become one of our most vibrant industries. Three out of four Americans complain of chronic stress. Two out of every three visits to the family doctor are thought to be stress related, and the three top-selling prescription drugs are for ulcers, depression, and hypertension. Stress is also partly to blame, psychologists say, for the startling 300% increase in depression over the course of this century.

Stress can have many different sources, of course: financial strain, family pressures, medical problems, and so on. But in a society that has come to be so broadly defined by information technology, it is becoming increasingly clear that the information revolution sweeping us into a new realm of communication is also serving as one of our greatest stressors. Our fast-paced, high-stimulation society leaves many people complaining about being overwhelmed, while many others are becoming unhealthfully addicted to the mania.

"People seem to be developing a form of attention deficit disorder without inheriting it," says Dr. Theodore Gross, an expert on attention-span disorders. "The information explosion has something to do with it--all the faxes and E-mail and calls come in, and people can't keep up with it."

Attention deficit disorder (ADD), an increasingly common brain imbalance, causes acute restlessness and a propensity toward boredom and distraction. Victims of ADD often find it extraordinarily difficult to concentrate on any one thing for more than a few moments. Their minds wander, and they frequently find themselves involved in several things at once.

If those symptoms sound eerily familiar, it is because we may be on the verge of an ADD epidemic. While millions of Americans are thought to suffer from an inherited form of ADD, experts are now seeing a whole new manifestation of what they call "culturally induced ADD."

No matter how creatively we name it, however, the effects of information overload do not add up to one single debilitating syndrome that we can easily highlight, recoil in horror from, and muster a simple defense against. A careful review of 30 years of research reveals a wide variety of effects from information and stimulus overload, including, but not limited to, increased cardiovascular stress, weakened vision, confusion, frustration, impaired judgment, decreased benevolence, and overconfidence coupled with decreased accuracy.

As data smog changes the scope of our daily lives, our escapist fantasies evolve. Instead of jaunting off to savor intense new experiences, we design vacations of pure void. An editor friend of mine has just returned from a luxurious Caribbean vacation during which, he boasts, he had all the extravagances he desired: no TV, no radio, no newspaper, no computers. "My idea of pure bliss," he says, "is no information at all."

Can We Keep Up?
How did we come to a point where our own tools of enlightenment would cause such distress? Ours is a culture of knowledge, an Age of Reason rooted in the 16th- and 17th-century scientific inquiry of Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton. Communications have been the lifeblood of civilization. But in our roaring technological prosperity, we have, so far, ignored the lesson Marshall McLuhan taught us decades ago: that every technology has positive and negative consequences for society.

Physically, we are what we are. So while we like to think of humans as adaptable creatures, the plain truth is that because of our complexity and longevity, we aren't nearly as quick to physically adapt as are many other species. Our brains have remained structurally consistent for more than 50,000 years, yet exposure to processed information in this century has increased by a factor of thousands. Something has to give.

Psychological tests reveal a bevy of clinical responses to data smog--confusion, frustration, overconfidence, and so on. But what does information overload look like in the real world? For some more personal snapshots of the overload experience, I sent out an electronic query on the Internet.

The response was stunning. From Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Britain, California, New Jersey, Minnesota, and Colorado, I heard from scores of people:

  • An accountant who files all her forms on a computer without any difficulty but who becomes frozen with indecision when confronted with the open-ended world of the Internet.
  • A lawyer whose progressive addiction to computers culminated in a terrifying nightmare about being trapped in an endless library.
  • A librarian who has been professionally trained to grapple with mountains of information but who has lately succumbed to the feeling that the information supply is finally getting out of control.

And a vast assortment of others with memory troubles, sore backs, blurry vision, headaches, and so on.

I've also noticed a problem with my own memory and have had countless conversations with others as they tried to recall in vain where they came across some specific piece of information. "We're exceptional at storing information," explains UCLA memory expert Robert Bjork. "But there are retrieval limitations. We get overloaded. We know the name of that high school friend. It is in our memory somewhere, but we can't quite get to it."

The specific culprit involved in our increasingly spotty memories, he says, is "cue overload." Memory is stored according to specific cues--contexts within which the information is experienced. The problem comes when the contexts begin to vanish in the sea of data. Perhaps, like me, you now read nearly everything off the same computer screen, in the same sitting position, in the same spot in the same room. Perhaps the majority of your conversations now take place over the same phone in the same chair. "When many different things get associated with the same situational cues," explains Bjork, "you're going to have a greater difficulty remembering any one of those things. With information overload, retrieval becomes more difficult."

The new surfeit of choice also threatens our identities, our spiritual selves. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig offers a practical solution to the existential alienation people suffer from in modern society: his prescription is for people to reattach themselves to the technologies that they depend on by learning how they work. Sophisticated as we are, he argues, we still need to feel connected to our world in a rudimentary way. But Pirsig's ideas, sound as they are, are becoming obsolete. As the sophistication of the machinery increases each year, his solution of reattachment is increasingly unavailable to us. Sadly, we're creating a world so complex that each of us will understand less and less about it.

Analysis Paralysis
The proliferation of expert opinions has ushered in a virtual anarchy of expertise. To follow the news today is to have the surreal understanding that the earth is melting and the earth is cooling; that nuclear power is safe and nuclear power is not safe; that affirmative action works--or wait, no, it doesn't. In the era of limitless data, there is always an opportunity to crunch some more numbers, spin them a bit, and prove the opposite. With the widening pool of elaborate studies and arguments on every side of every question, more expert knowledge has, paradoxically, led to less clarity.

Statistics and hard facts are one of the fundamental ingredients of a just and civil society; but as with other forms of information, it turns out that too much of a good thing can have unwelcome consequences. The dramatic reduction in the cost of information production and distribution has ushered in an era of seemingly endless argumentation.

With a majority of American workers now paid to churn out data, we have generated a morass of expert information that has started to undermine logical approaches to deliberation and problem solving. The endless analysis is so overwhelming, it's difficult to know how and when to make decisions.

The statistical anarchy freezes us in our cerebral tracks. The psychological reaction to such an overabundance of information and competing expert opinions is to simply avoid coming to conclusions. "You can't choose any one study, any one voice, any one spokesperson for a point of view," explains psychologist Robert Cialdini. "So what do you do? It turns out that the answer is, you don't do anything. You reserve judgment. You wait and see what the predominance of opinion evolves to be."

As the amount of information and competing claims stretches toward infinity, the concern is that we may be on the verge of a whole new wave of indecisiveness: paralysis by analysis. In this way, technology brings with it yet another internal contradiction: as it speeds up our world in the name of efficiency and productivity, it constricts rational thinking.

The Two-by-Four Effect
In a glutted environment, the most difficult task is not getting one's message out but finding a receptive audience. As psychologist Stanley Milgram explained in 1970, individuals adapt to stimulus overload by allocating less time to each input, blocking reception whenever possible, and installing filtering devices to keep the number of inputs down to a manageable level. Metaphorically speaking, we plug up our ears, pinch our noses, cover our eyes with dark sunglasses, and step into a bodysuit lined with protective padding.

But that is not the end of the story. Inevitably, someone wishes to attract the attention of our overloaded, well-protected subject. Intuitively, the communicator responds to the new barriers with barrier-piercing countermeasures. In order to make contact with the person wearing earplugs, he raises his voice. To catch the eye of the person with sunglasses, he uses brighter lights. To make an impression on someone wearing a lot of protective padding, he gives that person a whack on the head. The predicament has become so common that there's already a popular American expression for it: "I had to hit him on the head with a two-by-four to get his attention."

And so it is that our glutted society is victimized by what we might call the "two-by-four effect." The two-by-four effect provides humanity with a way to keep communication alive in a glutted environment. But in so doing, it extracts a hefty price: society, as we all know from experience, is becoming inexorably more crass. We are witnessing the new reign of trash TV, hate radio, shock jocks, tort litigation, publicity stunts, and excessively violent and sarcastic rhetoric.

Historically, discourteousness and vulgarity have always signified a lack of sophistication; garishness was considered tasteless and degrading. In today's attention-deficit society, however, people have learned that churlish behavior is the key to headlines, profit, and power. Outrageous behavior by individuals is rewarded with wealth and influence.

Information technology has transformed the general public into a giant lay media, and in so doing, it has also bestowed upon us "glutizens" the quintessential media burden: to grab an audience. Everyone wants to be heard (or read or watched). If the media are now us, then we all have the same problem of trying to get attention in a world full of glutted, distracted people. Since we are at once victims of the glut and glutizens who contribute to it, we are simultaneously casualties of the two-by-four effect and its patrons.

As such a desensitizer, the two-by-four effect may also freeze out some of our best minds from the mainstream of public debate. If one has to be sensational and dramatic to gain attention, what does that portend for the insightful, brilliant minds whose ideas don't lend themselves to MTV videos or flashy Web pages? If our attention naturally gravitates toward the Madonnas and Howard Sterns of the world, who gets left behind in the dust? Ironically, the two-by-four effect suppresses those individuals whom we most desperately need in our complex times--the people who are willing to confront life's ambiguities.

David Shenk lives in Brooklyn.

Copyright © 1997 by David Shenk. From the book Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut, by David Shenk. Reprinted by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers Inc.


More on Data Smog

  • Smog Lifters: Tips to cut through info deluge from Tripod's Bo Peabody, author Andrew Tobias, MIT's Nick Negroponte, and more
  • Data data: statistics from the front lines of the information glut