The Paula Gordon Show
Coexisting With Computers

David Shenk

David Shenk is a working journalist who lives in Brooklyn, NY. He writes for Wired, Harper's, Spy and the Washington Post. He has been a commentator for public radio's Marketplace and the Microsoft Network. A former Fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, he is also co-author of Skeleton Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads. His book, Data Smog, is published by HarperEdge.

David Shenk is an optimist about the consequences of the shift we've experienced in the past 50 years -- from information acquirers to information producers, from information hunter-gatherers to farmers.

Shenk believes it is very good news indeed that we are no longer in danger of not getting enough information, since we now live on it. He does warn, however, we now have too much of a good thing and now we must learn to be skeptical. Information must be manageable or it can poison us, distort our lives, rob us of the ability to concentrate and to focus. And the overabundance of information takes a heavy toll in our time.   All these hazards apply to our kids, too, both at home and in the classroom.

Shenk sees a real danger of becoming addicted to the thrills of modern media, intoxicated by the feeling of being connected. The stakes are high -- democracy and our fundamental liberties depend on having and sharing good information. So we must not only be vigilant, we must also learn to be more skeptical, resist becoming accustomed to today's extremely quick pace, refuse to sacrifice critical thinking, stand firm against over-simple answers to increasingly complex questions.

Shenk thinks we can do it, too. Seize control of information. He is alive to the paradox that sometimes getting control requires relinquishing control (a sore subject among extremist Internet libertarians.) Fortunately, both journalism and government work very well in this society. Both can help us redefine an appropriate balance in our lives and exercise appropriate control over the new technologies and the glut of information which have invaded our lives.

One sure sign of progress. Increasingly, people are getting more sophisticated, exercising restraint on how information impacts their lives. People are beginning to demand balance in their lives. And quiet. With Time Square effectively having invaded our homes, we'll begin to define"progress" by how well people make new technologies work for us instead of us mindlessly adapting to the new technologies.

  • Information overload is like pollution -- take control of it or it will suffocate you.
  • Be wary of technology. Adapt it to your uses, rather than you adapting to it.
  • Don't be overwhelmed. You simply can't keep up with everything, there's too much.  
  • Raw information is raw potential. It has no value until it is converted to knowledge.

Conversation 1

David Shenk tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how media have turned all of our homes into the equivalent of Times Square. Television is Shenk's example of how even familiar technologies are now dramatically different. He describes how culture evolves much more rapidly in humans than do our body and brain.

Conversation 2

Shenk draws the analogy between the pollution caused by the industrial revolution and the "smog" now a byproduct of the information revolution. Because we now live on information, he also makes an analogy to nutrition -- we're becoming obese on cheap calories! He makes a strong case for people being more skeptical.

Shenk tells why he is very enthusiastic about the information revolution, which has changed us from information acquirers to information producers who are now all part of the media. He also warns that the thrill of being connected can be intoxicating, addictive and destructive. He expresses concern that we are sacrificing the quality of our work and our ability to concentrate and he offers suggestions for Congressional action which would clear some of the data smog.

Conversation 3

"Thrill," Shenk believes, is an essential component in talking about how we interact with today's technologies. He offers advice for discerning what information on the Internet is reliable and has suggestions for legislation which would enhance the quality of the Internet without stifling its creative spirit. While he supports the freedom of information, he does not think it is appropriate for all information on the Internet to be available at no cost. He urges people to be vigilant of our freedoms while being responsible for the controls which ensures our liberty. He applauds how well government works in our culture.

Shenk tells why today's Internet is not, in fact, "free" and explains the hidden costs in money and in time.

Conversation 4

Democracy is the prize Shenk most wants to defend, arguing that communications and information are the lynch pins of a free and functioning society. He describes what we sacrifice, living in a distracted environment. He urges us to look at the unintended consequences of our over-eager adaptation to today's explosion of information and the technologies that deliver it.

Shenk explains how our culture has become vulgarized by people like Howard Sterne, Rush Limbaugh, Madonna and Dennis Rodman. He offers ways to meet today's challenge of converting abundant information into knowledge.

Conversation 5

Shenk describes the perils of specialization. He tells why he worries specialization puts our common culture at risk and explains why this is a clear and present threat to a democratic society. He urges people to resist the temptations of simple answers to complex questions and offers prescriptions for coping with data smog.

Knowledge, not information, should be our goal. Shenk offers ways to convert data to knowledge in our adult lives and in our children's schools.

Conversation 6

Shenk elaborates on why "balance" is so vital to surviving and prospering in today's information glut. He gives examples of how imposing limits and exercising restraint increasingly indicate how sophisticated people are. He explains why it is vital for us to adapt technology to our lives, not allow technology to drive who and what we are.


David Shenk and his wife, Alexandra Beers, graciously welcomed us into their home in Brooklyn. We were charmed. Next time we'll make it a point to really get to know Brooklyn. We appreciate the introduction!

We thank Mark Chimsky, Editorial Director of HarperSanFrancisco, for introducing us to David's work.

Additional Links:
Data Smog is published by HarperEdge, an imprint of HarperSanFrancisco.

Notes Along with the insights and guidance David Shenk provides in his book, Data Smog, he also supplies a concise list of organizations one may contact in order to reduce the clutter of junk mail, phone calls and spam:

Telephone Preference Service Experian Opt Out
Direct Marketing Association 701 Experian Parkway
P.O. Box 9014 Allen, TX 75002
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014

Mail Preference Service
Direct Marketing Association (with "REMOVE ALL" in
P.O. Box 9008 subject or message field)
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008
Specific instructions and additional information are contained in an appendix to Data Smog.

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