Data Delirium

UPDATED 11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 11/03/1997 at 01:00 AM EST

Fax machines alone spit out more than 40 billion sheets of paper a year in the U.S. and Canada. Add the explosion of e-mail, voice mail, cell phones, pagers, cable, satellite communications, the Internet, the ubiquitous TV and computer screens in our homes, offices, restaurants and public spaces, and it's hardly surprising that many of us feel swamped by information.

It's time to bail out, argues David Shenk, author of Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (Harper San Francisco). While the 31-year-old radio commentator and journalist readily acknowledges that new business, entertainment and communications vistas can be wonderful, even thrilling, their combined effect can also be "very numbing," he says. "It tends to stress us out and take away our serenity." Worse, he believes, it may actually harm our health and our society. "All technology is a double-edged sword," he says. "It gives something and takes something away."

At the duplex apartment he shares in Brooklyn with his wife, teacher Alexandra Beers, 31, and their baby daughter Lucy, Shenk sat down recently with PEOPLE contributor Helene Stapinski to discuss the growing information glut and how to cope with it.

How do we know "data smog" is getting worse?

There are many indications. Americans are exposed to six times more ads now than they were in the early '70s. The average business manager is expected to read about 1 million words a week. In the office, 60 percent of the average worker's time is spent processing documents. In a Reuters survey of business managers, two-thirds reported increased tension and decreased job satisfaction associated with information overload.

Is it also getting "louder"?

Yes, because people trying to reach us have to work harder to get our attention and hold onto it. Advertising and entertainment get louder and more shocking, more gripping, more frightening—whatever it takes to get our attention and hold it for a second or two. All this tends to lead to a more vulgar society. Shock celebrities like Howard Stern, Madonna or Rush Limbaugh succeed because they're "in your face"—a great phrase for our time.

How does it most harm us?

It's very difficult to feel the richness and essential meaning of what it is to be alive when you're bombarded with information. As we fill all our spaces with this constant stream of it, we become distracted, our decision making can suffer, our stress goes up and we feel spiritually empty.

What happens when we tune out?

Well, when you free yourself from watching TV—which for me is very difficult—you find you're spending your time in more valuable ways. You're talking to people in person or on the phone. You're reading interesting books. Television is hypnotic, it's seductive, it's a little intoxicating. But if you examine whether it makes you feel good about yourself, the answer is no. Reading, thinking and having conversations are how we spur our creative minds.

What about computers in our schools?

I'm skeptical about putting a computer in every classroom—that's like putting an electric power plant in every home. Computers can access huge volumes of information and are an excellent reference resource. But education is about ordering information and having teachers help kids acquire intellectual building blocks and learn how to learn.

Where is it all headed?

People ask me all the time—are we going to stop reading books? I definitely worry about that. Everyone's attention span is getting so short, and they're developing a real taste for quickness and distraction. Having a young child, I'm not going to keep her out of the world or anything. Of course, I want her to be a citizen. But I want to instill in her an appreciation and a patience for things like books and things that do take some time.

Any advice for parents?

The importance of limiting TV cannot be overemphasized. It's more numbing and overwhelming than it was even 10 years ago. In addition, we need to instill in our children a certain skepticism about technology. They don't have to reject all of it, but they should examine how it will affect their lives. As responsible parents, we need to set a good example. We can't say "read lots of books" when we're playing computer games and whipping out our pocket planners ourselves.

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