Remember last year's Seagate Software campaign? Under the slogan "The Only Important Piece of Information Is the One You Need Right Now," the ads showed hapless souls (a guy wanting a description of his blind date, a groom looking for the wedding chapel) being showered with every possible response to their questions except the actual answers. It was a whimsical take on a serious business problem: people today are inundated with so much information that it's impairing their ability to make decisions, recognize what is significant, and even get a decent night's sleep. Here, survival strategies from some true information connoisseurs.

Esther Dyson
Chairman, EDventure Holdings
New York City

Why she's inundated: Dyson runs the PC Forum, high tech's premier conclave, and edits the newsletter Release 1.0.

First source for news each day: E-mail. "I currently have more than 1,000 E-mails in my in box, although I keep trying to work it down."

Why E-mail is her lifeline: "It connects me to individuals I want to talk to, usually answering and discussing the specific topics I'm interested in. And it's often stuff that you won't ever find in print or on the Web."

Source she's dropped: PC trade magazines. "I can find most of the stuff they print on-line or else I've already seen it in an E-mail."

Guilty pleasure: "I read Dear Abby and Ann Landers when I come across them."

On electronic mailing lists: "I find out about them from other people, usually. It's a good thing because there's someone out there filtering things for you and culling the best."

Coping strategy: Her home doesn't have a telephone line. "I spend so much time on the phone and E-mail at work, including personal stuff, that I like to be incommunicado at home."

Scott Adams
Creator, Dilbert
Danville, Calif.

Why he's inundated: Adams's book The Dilbert Principle was a number one New York Times best-seller. His current book is titled The Joy of Work. Adams encourages readers to contact him by E--mail through his Web site, which is listed in his books.

First source for news each day: CNBC, while he brews his morning coffee.

Regular reading: Adams loves magazines. (And we love him for saying so!) "They do the best job of putting the news and issues in context. Almost all other sources of news are context free, which makes them more harmful than useful."

Source he's dropped: "I rarely watch network news shows anymore. I already know all the news by the time those shows air."

Guilty pleasure: Every day, Adams goes on-line to check his investment portfolio at Microsoft Investor or Charles Schwab's site. "There's no real reason, except that it's fun to do."

Pet peeve: "E-mail spam is about 25% of all my E-mail now. It makes me nuts."

Andrew Tobias
Personal-finance writer

Why he's inundated: Tobias proffers personal-finance advice in magazines, in software, on the Web, on PBS's Beyond Wall Street, and in books.

First source for news each day: "The Today Show for its meatier segments--or else CNN."

Regular reading: The Wall Street Journal, followed by the New York Times, E-mail, and Yahoo!

Source he's dropped: "Anything that tries to help you beat the market--be they newsletters or magazine articles with titles like 'How to Speculate Without Risk' or anything like that."

Guilty pleasure: "When I am overloaded, I retreat into my own private computer-Scrabble zone."

Coping strategy: What to do about too-prolific E-mailers? "Many of them are brilliant and wonderful and well-meaning, so it's a little hard. But basically you just signal them by replying with ever shorter E-mails--my ultimate being, unsigned and in its entirety, 'Thx!'--which conveys that you do like them, hence the exclamation mark, but that you are just living in a different time frame than they are--you are getting 100 E-mails a day and can't possibly develop the kinds of correspondences you would like to."

Nicholas Negroponte
Director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab
Cambridge, Mass.

Why he's inundated: Negroponte's position at MIT ensures that he knows nearly everyone and everything that's going on in high tech.

First source for news each day: "Unquestionably E-mail."

Why he loves E-mail: "Asynchrony. Time to reflect. The ability to do many things in the otherwise wasted interstices of life. It also makes some people more honest and bold."

Source he's dropped: Television. "It takes too much time for too little information except the breaking news. And even that is better served by the Web these days."

Guilty pleasures: "I read worldwide plane timetables. I love auction catalogs. And I am a sucker for action films."

Coping strategy: Negroponte makes and gets fewer than three phone calls a day. "Since I'm almost always in a different time zone or in orbit, using the telephone is real hard." But his aversion to the phone goes beyond convenience. "Most telephone calls are gratuitous in their need for real time. Huge amounts of effort are devoted to synchronizing yourselves for an exchange which usually can and should be asynchronous."

So whom does he talk to by phone? His 90-year-old broker.

Bob Bennett
U.S. senator from Utah
Washington, D.C., and Salt Lake City

Why he's inundated: Bennett, a Republican, serves on several Senate committees, including Small Business; Appropriations; and Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

Source he's dropped: Sunday-morning talk shows--"unless I'm actually on the shows."

Guilty pleasure: The Hotline, a Web-based daily briefing compiled by the National Journal Group. "I'll get in and start to feed. I'll be reading about governors' races in states that don't mean anything to me, and I'll waste 15 minutes when I should have been preparing for a hearing or a speech."

Pet peeve: What he calls "artificial balance." Bennett thinks that a lot of extremists get on TV just so journalists can say they've covered a variety of viewpoints. "A lot of times I'll see someone on TV and I'll think, 'If he were not on the other side of an issue, he wouldn't have any credibility at all as a source.' "

Coping strategy: "I'll go through my reading schedule, and if I need to read the Times and I only have so much time, I'll read the editorial page and glance at the national news and then throw it away quickly, so I don't get bogged down in sports."

David Brudnoy
Radio talk-show host, Boston University professor, and author

Why he's inundated: Brudnoy hosts five hours of talk radio five nights a week, sometimes chatting with presidential candidates in one segment and Oscar nominees in the next.

Guilty pleasures: The on-line tabloid The Drudge Report . Also, Politically Incorrect and The Oprah Winfrey Show.

Pet peeves: Chat rooms and electronic mailing lists. They're often "a repository of nutcases and ne'er-do-wells, grumblers, and people with agendas."

His secret to handling six pounds of mail each day: "I trash the company mailers and junk mail immediately."

How he uses the Internet to stay on top of breaking news: Brudnoy has a PC at his microphone and surfs to news sites like CNN and local radio and television station WBZ while he chats with guests on his show. He also answers 50 E-mail messages daily while his guests take questions from callers.

Coping strategy: "I avoid distraction on the Internet. If I need something, I know where to find it. I don't go anywhere else."

Doug Hall
CEO, Richard Saunders International
Newtown, Ohio

Why he's inundated: Hall is one of the nation's leading product-development and packaging gurus.

First source for news each day: None. "I just don't wake up in the morning looking for information."

Pet peeve: "The tendency to treat all information at the same level. There's a big difference between qualitative and quantitative information. With the Internet and E-mail, people find information that they treat as fact, without verifying the precision of that information. And people don't look too hard to see if something's an anomaly or not."

On the Internet: "The Internet is a library. Before it existed, I didn't go to the library that often. Now that it exists, I don't go there any more than I went before. It's a great place to find eclectic facts, but its practicality and functionality are limited."

Coping strategy:An affinity for numbers. "Math is our friend, but too many people are scared of math. Information overload decreases if you base your decisions on real mathematical knowledge--and this is a creativity flake who's saying all of this."

Ellen Hancock
CEO, Exodus Communications Inc.
Santa Clara, Calif.

Why she's inundated: Her company helps big clients like Hewlett-Packard Co. and National Semiconductor Corp. set up shop on the Internet.

First source for news each day: She logs on to the Exodus mail system before she goes to work each morning. "Exodus runs a global business. With all of the time differences, so much business has transpired by my 6 a.m. wake-up that I simply have to check E-mail as part of my morning routine."

Regular reading: On-line news sites, national newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, business magazines, and high-tech trade journals.

Guilty pleasure: Books on tape, which she listens to on the treadmill or while driving to work. Recent fave: Katharine Graham's Personal History.

Coping strategy: "I have a very busy schedule, so E-mail works well, since I can use it anytime and anyplace. I must admit, however, that the volume of E-mail I receive can be overwhelming. I also have a cell phone that I'm using more often now. I wear a pager when I know people want to reach me, but I'm still trying to figure out how to make the pager a tool that works for me."

Bo Peabody
Founder, Tripod Inc.
Williamstown, Mass.

Why he's inundated: Peabody, 27, founded Tripod, a company that helps people develop personal Web pages. He sold his start-up to search engine Lycos in a stock deal valued at $58 million in February 1998 and has stayed on as Tripod's CEO.

First source for news each day: E-mail. "This is where I get all my news. I subscribe to E-mail lists, get Web pages, and get news pushed to me from our PR firm, advertising agencies, and compulsive news gatherers across the whole Lycos network family."

Guilty pleasure: Magazines. "When I take the train on the weekend--like between Williamstown and New York City--I buy People, Sports Illustrated, and Newsweek and read them while sipping a few scotches--important for letting your media-snob guard down. There is no better pleasure."

Pet peeve: The stack of business plans he's accumulated. "People with bad ideas really bother me. I now know how the venture capitalists feel. The number of bad business plans that I see is stunning."

Worst plan he's seen? "My own. I can't believe it got funded. I also saw a pretty bad one for colonizing Mars."

Kay Stepp
Principal, Executive Solutions Inc.
Portland, Oreg.

Why she's inundated: Stepp, the first woman to run a public utility, was formerly president and chief operating officer of Portland General Electric Co. Today she coaches CEOs as a full-time, home-based executive adviser.

First source for news each day: National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Guilty pleasure: Baseball scores and stats. (She's a Cubs fan.)

Pet peeve: Lengthy voice-mail messages.

Coping strategy: "I used to be someone who tried to call everyone back whether I knew them or not. Now, if I don't know someone and the message doesn't indicate its relevance right away, I might not call them back." She also admits to throwing away unopened letters and deleting E-mail from people she doesn't recognize. "I've never gotten a gem of information from an E-mail."

On being solo: "When I worked for a big utility, I had people weeding and sorting for me. I probably didn't lay out my priorities as tightly as I do now. Today I'm more focused on what I deal with and what I let enter my realm."

Barry Scheck
Professor, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University
New York City

Why he's inundated: Because former clients O.J. Simpson and Louise Woodward are not in prison.

First source for news each day: Imus in the Morning, Today, and National Public Radio.

Regular reading: "I read three daily newspapers (the New York Times, the Daily News, and sometimes the New York Post), a number of weekly magazines (the New Yorker, the New York Observer, Science, Sports Illustrated), and monthlies like Brill's Content. I use AOL for E-mail and occasional forays to the Net. I am on an E-mail list for criminal-law professors and receive a lot of other E-mail from colleagues and friends."

Sources he's dropped: "Many of the Internet services, cable-TV talking heads, and TV news-magazine shows."

Guilty pleasure: ESPN

Pet peeves: Excessive voice mail and junk snail mail.

Achilles' heel: "I just get too many calls to return each day. I deal badly with serial hard-copy junk mailers. And I don't check my E-mail and voice mail as much as I should."

More on Data Smog

  • Read an except from Data Smog by David Shenk
  • Data data: statistics from the front lines of the information glut