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					Information           of
                 Concept
          Overload,
DavidShenk
A,thar, Bn.kl!n. N.1! l.rn, USA




                                                                                                 \{/e havc quite suddenly murated irto a radically differ-
    L The Suryfising Tradeoffsof Information Proliferation
                                                                                                 e n . r r r r r r r , ; . i ' i l i z r r i o , t h . . t - r t d e . tdt .' u - \ . . o
   ll. SrJess
                                                                                                 slvlized comnrlrii.atb!.                     And as rve enior rhe many
  lll. ll-e Psvrhologv f Overlo.d
                      o
                                                                                                  r l r . " l . h . b r rg e o , ' i " s r . , , r " n c \ ' / ' . u , , . r F
                                                                                                                                              i
               P
  rV. Anarvsis aralv5;c
                                                                                                 also have to learn to compensaretor rhe ne$. and per-
   V. lf e lwo by.foJ' rF"(l
                                                                                                 rnanent side effectsof rvhar sociologists,i an acadenic
  V'. VillaBe f BabeL
            o                                                                                                                           'lncssagc
                                                                                                 understarement,call a                                   dense" societl'.
                                                               Ifstid il;. di!:oueryhasrot b.en m undllt)rtd bhssins,  ifit
                                                               hds .a11fefted ndnhit tha potu.r ftot akl! to dedte but
                                                                              ."
GLOSSARY
                                                               nls. 1oafthil)ildte. hnsdt the sd,n ti,k proriled hthldfltr
                                                                                  it
cult!ralADD the recentlyobservedsocialvariantofAttenuonDeficlt tunh d s,lretu .hdlleflgeandd sLpf-re tcstins.
Disordeilhe.lasrk form ofADD is thoughtto be a bloloei.ally                                           -loh F K.nned-v,19611
basedcondition  causins persistent
                       a            patternoi difficuLtles
                                                         resuLling
in inattention,
              hyperactivity, impul5ivity,
                            and            Cultural ADDattributes
the sameset of behaviors the ovetuhelming
                         to                   speedofinformation
and orr lncfeasingcultureofdistraction.                                                          I. THE               OF
                                                                                                               TRADEOFFS
                                                                                                       SURPRISING
data smog An unexpected unweL.ome codponentto tlie
                          and             new                                                                PROLIFERATION
                                                                                                    INFORMATION
as€ ofinformatjon,datasmogis an expression   forth€ oveMhelming
volumeole.mail,voi.€ mail,faxes, judk fraiL,up to.the.minutenews                                 Something        m.rrvelous     has llccn happenugto hunran
fLashes, nesm€rizing
         and            electronic imasesthat we now comeinio
                                                                                                 kind nor just iD |he past three or four years r.idr
                                                                               poolsof
                                                                                                 cornpurers       and rhe InlerDer,but more brordl,vin the
neta-anatysisThestudyofstudi€s;a methodof combining
statisticsirom a wide rangeolstudies aid makinga.omprehensive
                                                                                                 pasrseveral       decadcs.   Informarionis moving frster and
analysis basedon the whole.                                                                      bccomiry more pientiful, and peoplccvcrywhere                        are
spam Llnsolicited       e-maiLi t€rm is d€rivedfrom a conedy skit by
                                   the                                                           bereEting      {rom thn change.
                             [
the absurdisttroup€ onty Pythonin whichunsuspectins                         dinersa.e               Burthereis a surprisirgpostscript thisstory.when to
'
  o n a o r - d r l h " ' " , " u a 1 r r " n u r , l u d c " e q ga n db a . o r e c B
                                                                                  ,              it comes informalion, ir nrns our that onecan have
                                                                                                              to
sausase  aid bacon,         egg and Span, egg bacon            and spam,ess ba.on                                                      a
                                                                                                 too muchof a good thing.,A.t ccrrainlevelol input, the
sausase spam,Spambacon
         and                                sausage spam,spamegsSpan
                                                        and
spam ba.onand span" land so onl. When,in lhe earLy                      199os,    itwas          law of diminishing        returnstnkeseffcctirheglut ol rnlor
noticed                                     got
        that ceitainindivid!aLs a klck out of lntetruptingtexr                                   rtlationro longcraddsto orLrqualityoflife, bnt insrca.l
basedNet dialosues           with useless      and iftelevant    driveL, term
                                                                         the                     b e p i l .r o . u r | , e - . - . . 1 ' n t " , i . n . d F e r i s n o r
                                                                                                                                                        ,
                                                                                                 ance. Information olcrload rhreatensour ability to
stat wars Mkhael Kinslevstem for tlr€ exhaustive,                      constant    policy        educateoursclvcsand leavesus more vulnerablc as
arguments               by
               fueLed s€eminsLv           unlinited amounts          ofdata,
                 gets
                                                                                                 consuncrsard lesscohesive a socie l lor most ol
                                                                                                                                         is
Fa.tionalism a big boostfrom the volleys                    ofdata, whilediaLogue
a n d . o n s e n s u s h e m a r i o w f d e m o c r a c y - r utn i n n e a n di h i n i e r
                      t                o                          h         r                    us, it actually diminishesolrr contfol ovcr our own
                                                                                                 lives,whiLcthose'rlreadyin power find rheir pos,trcns
                                                                                                 .o-.iderbI .rrelgrh ,, .       -
                                                                                                    'Ibis
                                                                                                            is not rhe 6rst time we havebeenconfrortcd b-r
 l r , ' r . r , , . d , e L e td r ; - ' z r r ' - / . F n .I n b eo e                          rhe rnpleasantsidc cffectso{ abundance.                   Thoseof us
,de.J ) n', .,, ',                     r i.FJ.rre.. :rform .,or                                  vho livc iD the United Stares, most sophisticatecl
                                                                                                                                            the
. ' , , . ' r . lt " . e p r : , " d f o n n ri o r \ . . , . " ) J \ , r i m
                                   i                                                             and successlul       n:tion on Earrh,als) r(,uttul)' lind our
portanr ncw emorionrl, sociai,and politi*rl problcnr.                                            selves   burdened problems
                                                                                                                        by              oferccss.Noq,,for all the


bqdbptdh    dt trktnrranrt Mettb antl
coryislt:oor, €Ls*qsltKc      (usA).ALrrghE csryd.
196                                                                                                      overlood,
                                                                                               lnfurnation             of'
                                                                                                                 concePt


wonders of the information revolutioD,a menacing                       But in the mid 20th centurythis gracefulsynchrony
cloud of 'data smog" hasdrifted nr. In this articie,we             was abruptly knockedoff track with the introduction
wlll explore its unwholesonepropertiesand suggest                  of computers,   microwave   transmissions,    television,and
somebealthfulremedies recollect criticaldistinc-
                              to           the                     satellites. These hyperproduction        and hyperdistribu
tion between inJormation and r.rnderstandingand to                 tion mechanismssurged ahead of human processing
demomtratewhy you do not have to {eel personally                   ability. In this way, in a very short span of natural
overloadedwith information to be a victim of the infor-            history, we have vaulted frorn a state of informatton
mation glut.                                                       scarcity to one of information surpl$ ftom drought
   lnJormationusedto be asrare and precious sold.      as          to flood in the geological   blink o{ an eye.tn 1850,4%
It is estimatedthat one weekday edition of todayt Ner/             ot L.\. workeF handled      inlormdl|on J livingr
                                                                                                              for           now
 Yor,{ Timcs contains more information than the aver-              mort do, and information                     (as
                                                                                                   processing opposedto
agepersonin 17th-century         Englandwaslikely to come          material goods) now accounts for more than half of
across    in an entire li{etime. Now it is so inexpensiveand       the U.S. gross national product. Data have hecome
pientiful that most o{ it €nds op being renaindered and             more thnri,ul. more .peedy rcompurer              Proce<s:ng
shrdded, as i{ it is worthlessgarbage.          The 6rst great     speed doubledeverytvo years th€last30 years),
                                                                           has                            for
pJrJdux inrormarion i' rharur arebecoming
             of               glut                            so   and nore dense(from 1965 to 1995, the average            net
information-richthat we take much oI what we have                  work televisionadvertisement          decreased    from 53.1
 for grant€d.                                                      {.ond. ro 25.4r. ond.dndrh. rverage          relevition '
                                                                                                                           ae$
    Still, the concept of too , uch information seens odd          soundbite    decreased                       to
                                                                                          from 42.3 seconds 8.3 seconds;
 andvaguclyinhuman.This is because, evolutionary-
                                              in                   meanwhiie,over dre sameperiod, the number of ads
 historical terms,     this weed in ouir inJormation land          per network tel€visionrninute increased          fron 1-1 to
 scape just sprouted-it is only about 50 yearsold.
         has                                                       2.4).
Until about50 yearsago,moreinformationwasalDost                        Information hasalso become lot cheaper-to pro-
                                                                                                        a
 alwaysa good thing. For nearly 100,000ye:rs teadiry                duce, to manipulate,to disseminate. oI this has
                                                                                                                All
 up to this ceniury, in{ormation techno}ogyhas becn an              ma,-r,us intormarion     rich. empowerinsAmericrr.
 unambiguous       virrue as a meansof sustaining      and de-     with the blessings applied knowledge.lt has also,
                                                                                         of
 veloping culture.       Information and commurucatrons             though, unleashed the potential of in{ormation glut
 have made us steadiiy healthier, wealthier, more toler-            tony.Justasfat hasftplaced starvation this nation's
                                                                                                                 as
 ant. Becauseof in{ormation, we understandmore                      numberone dietaryconcern,        informationoverloadhas
 about how to overcomethe basic challenges life.        of          replaced information scarcity as an impor'tant new
 Food is more abudant. Our physicalstructures                are    emotional,social,andpoliticalproblem.Withvirtually
 sturdier,more reliable.Our societies more stable,
                                             .re                    no effort and for relatively little cost, we can capture as
 aswe havelearned        howto makepoliticalsystems        {onc-    much informationaswe want.
 tion. Our cidzens      are freer,thanksto a wide dissemin-            \!,rh informarion    produ.rionnut only 'ncreasing.
 arion of infomation that has empowered the                         but accel€rating,  there is no sign that processing      will
 indrrrdu.rl.   Dangerou.     super.rrrion' ial.e notton'
                                            and                     ever catch up. V/e have quite suddenly mutated rnto a
 havebeenwashed          away:Conrmunicatins       quickly with     radicallydiflerent culture,a civilizntionthat tradesin
 peoplehelpsto overcome          our fear of them and dimin-        and surives on stylized   communication. no longer
                                                                                                                   We
 ishes likelihoodof contlict.
        the                                                         hunt or gather;few of us farm or assemble.       Instead, we
    Then, around the time of rle frst atomic bomb,                  negori:re. nerwork. rnLerface. a' ue enioy
                                                                                we            ue               And
 somethingstrangehappened.We began to produce                       the nany fruits o{ this burgeoning     informationciviliza-
 in{ormationmuch fasterthan we could process This       it.         tion, we also haveto leam to compensate the new  for
 hadnever     happened     before. 100,000years three
                                  For                 the           and permanent    sideeffectsoI what socjologists, an   in
 fundamentalstages the communications
                           of                        process-       a.ademic                     c.rll
                                                                               unoer.raremcnr, r me.vge-deoce            'ocietv.
 production, distr;bution, and plocessing had been                     Audio buffs have long been familiar with the pbJase
                                                                    "signafto noiseratio," engineering       parlancefor meas
  more or lessin synchwith one another.By and large,
  overour longhistorn peoplehave        been   ableto examme        uring the quality of a soundsystemby comparingthe
  and consider    information    about as quickly as it could       arnountof desiredaudio signalto the amount ot un-
  becreated circulated.
               and              This equipoise         th
                                                 lasted rough        wanred  noi'e lerkrng  rhroughln rheinformrtion         rge.
  an astonishing range oI       communications rnedia-the           signal-to-noise also becomea usetulway to think
                                                                                    has
  drun, smokesignal,cavepainting,horse,town cner,                    about social healrh and stability. How much of the
  carier pigeon,    newspaper,   photograph,    telegraph,  teie     idomation in our midst is usetul'and how much of it
  phone,radio, and fiim.                                            eetsin the way? What is our signafto noiseratio?We
          overlood,
tnfornation            of
                 concept                                                                                         397


know that the ratio hasdiminishedoflate and that the        josgins paths and mountain trails, on biles and
         o{                          As
character information haschanged: we haveac-
crued nore and more of it, information has emerged             We have heard a lot lately about the moral decay
nor onlyasa cunen.y.huralto rs r polluranr.                 evidentin our entertainment  packaging.  But rt ls not
  . In 1971 the averaCe                                                                        that
                                                            so muchthe contentofthe messages shouldworry
                        Americanwas rargered atby
                                                            usasmuchtheir ubiquity,and itis cfiticalto realizethat
    least560 daily advertising
                             messages.  Twentyyears
                                                            information does not have to be unwanted and un-
    later,that nunber had risensixfold, to 3000 mes
                                                            attractive be harmful.
                                                                      to
  . In the office, an averase o{ 60% of each person's
    time is now spentprocessing   documents.
  . Paper consumption per capita in the United Statcs         . STRESS
    tripled from 1940 to 1980 (from 200 to 600
                                                             Perhapsthe greatest story of acquisition and regret is
    pounds),and tripled agair from 1980 to 1990 (to
                                                             that oI rhe mlthical Greek god Prometheus, whose
    1800pounds).
  . In the 1980s,third classmail (usedto sendpubli-          punishment for stealing .tue and passing it down to
                                                             hman beings     wasto bechained   nakedto apiuarwhere
    cations) grew 13 times faste' thaD population
                                                             each day a rultue tote out his liver. The liver was
   . Two-thirds o{ business                                  divinely replenishedeach night, and the vulture would
                              managers    surveyed  report
                                                             ftrurn to €at it oft again the following dan In his
     tension with colleagues,    loss of job satisfaction,
                                                             di^IogLtePrctagords, Ilato puts this story in mofe con-
     and strainedpersonalrelationships a result of
                                            as
                                                             temporary perspective.It was not just tu€ that Prome-
     informationoverload.
   . More thln 1000 telemarketing companiesemploy            theus took. It was te.rrq the knowledg€ of how to
                                                             make things. The noral is that the price of techno
     4 million Americans   and generate    $550 billion in   logicalknow how includes pound of flesh.
                                                                                          a
                                                                Todan the vulturesstill feed,occasioning billion-
                                                                                                             a
  I call this unexpected, unwelcome    part of our atmos- dollar marketfor antacids      suchasTagamet     and Pepcid
phere "data smog," an expressionfor the noxious muck        AC. For all of our abundance,      ours is aiso an age oI
and druck of the information age.Data smoggetsin the         unprec€dented    stress,strain,headaches, digestive
                                                                                                         and
wayi it crowds out quiet momentsand obstructs much-         problems-so muchso,in {act,that tension becomehas
neededcontemplation.It spoils colversation, litera          one o{ our most vibrant industries. Three out of four
rure. and e!en enrertxrnmenr. th*arrr sr<eptnrr-. Americans
                                   Tr                                    complainofchronic stess.Two out ofevery
renderingus l€sssophisticated consumers
                                   as            .:rd citi  thlee visits to the family doctor are thought to be stress
zens.lt stresses out.
                 us                                         related,and the threetop-selling   prescription  drugsare
  Data smogis not just the pile ofunsolic;tedcatalogs for ulcers,depression, hypertension.
                                                                                     and                       is
                                                                                                         Stress also
and spam ariving daily in our home and electronic panly to blame, psychologists                 say, for the startling
mailboxes.It is also inJormationthat we pay hand-           300% increaseiD depression        over the courseof the
-rrnelyfo-.th:. we craye-rhe .educrive.      me,merizins 20th century.
quick cut televisionads and the 24-hour up-to-the-              Stresscan have many different sources, course:
                                                                                                            of
minute news flashes.It is the faxes we request as well      financial strain, {amily pressures,    medical problems,
as the oneswe do not; it is the misdialed   numbersand      aad so on. But in a societythat has come to b€ so
drippy sales  callswe getdudng dinnertime;    butit is also                   by                          it
                                                            broadlydefined informationtechnology, is becom-
the Web siteswe eagerly    visit beforeand after dinner, ing increasingly clear that the inJormation revolution
the pilc of magazines pore through everymonth!
                        we                                  sweepingus into a new realm of comrnuication is also
                  o{          we
and the dozens channels flip through whenever servingasoneol our greatest                   stressors.Ourfast-paced,
we get a tlee moment.                                       high-stimulation   society leaves nranypeoplecomplain
  The blank spaces silentmomentsin life are fast
                      and                                   ing abort beingoverwhelmed,       while many othersare
disappearing.   Mostly because have asked for it,
                                  we                        becomingunhealthilyaddictedto the mania. "Ieople
mediaare everywhere.     Televisions, telephones,  radios, seemto be developing a form of attention deficit dis-
message   beepers,                      of
                    and an assorrment other modern          order without ;nheritingit," saysDr. TheodoreGross,
communication     and navigational   aids ar€ now as ubi-   an expen on attention-span      disorders. "The informa-
quitousas roadsand tennisshoes -anywhere         humans tion explosion has something to do wirh it nll the
car go..rll forn' of mediano" lol'ow, onro ffain.. faxesand e rnail and callscomein, and peoplecannot
planes, and adomobiles,into hotel bathrooms,along           keepup with it."
?98                                                                                                                    Infmation overload,    of
                                                                                                                                         ConcePt


   Attention de6cit disorder (ADD), an increasingly                              informationhasbeenincrcasinsas       muchas 100% each
                                                                                                                 "Because            can
cornmon brain irnb*lance,causesacute rcstlessness                                year).Somethirghasto give.               technology
and a propensity toward boredom and distractron                                  evolve much faster than we can," says psychologist
Victims of ADD often find it extraordinarily difficult                           Robert Cialdini, "our natural capacity to processinfor
to concentrate on any ore thing for more than a few                              mation is likely to be increasingly inadequateto handle
moments.Their minds wander, and they frequently 6nd                              the surf€it of change,choice, aird challengethat is
themselvesjnvolved in several things at once. lf these                           characteristic of modern life."
symptomssound eerily familiar, it is becaus€ may be
                                               we                                   Psychologicaltestsreveal a berryof clinical responses
on the vergeof an ADD epidemic.Vhile millions of                                 to data smog<onfusion, Irustration, overconfidence,
Americans are thought to suffer from an inherited form                           and so on. But what does in{ormation overload look
of ADD, experls are now seeinga whole new manifest-                              like in the real world? For somemore personalsnap
ation of what they call culturally induced ADD                                   shotsof overloadexperience, sentout an electronlc
                                                                                                                  I
   No mater how creatively we name it, however, the                              query on the Internet.The response      was stunning.I
effects of in{ornation overload do not add up to one                             heard from scoresof people' from Denmark, Sweden,
singledebilitatingsyndromethat we can easilyhigh'                                LerminJ. Bri'rin.Cal,forni.r.    NewJer\ey.  Minnesor,r.
light, recoil in horror {rom, and muster a simple defense                        and Colorado:
against. care{ulreview of 30 yearso{ psychological
          A                                                                          . An accountant who 6les nll of her forms on a
research reveals a wide variety of effects from in(or-                                 computer without any difficulty, but who becomes
mation and stimulus overload, including, but not                                       frozen with indecision when confronted widr the
limited to increased     cardiovascular stressiweakened
                                                                                       open-endedworld of the Internet
vision, confusion,{rustration,impair€diudgment,de                                    . A lawyer whose progressive       addiction to com
creased                  and
          benevolence, overconndence        coupledwith                                puters culminated in a terrifying nightmare about
decreased   accuracy.                                                                  beingtrappedin an endless    library
   As datasmogchanges scope our daily lives,our
                           the      of                                               . A librarianwho hasbeenprofessiooally      trainedto
 escapist fantasies evolve. Instead of jaunting off to                                 grapple with mountains of information but who
 savor intense new oqeriences, we design vacations of                                  has lately succumbedto the feeling that the in{or-
 pure void. An editor friend of mine has iust rcturned                                 mation supply is finally getting out of control.
 {rorn a luxuriousCaribbean                     he
                                vacationwhere, boasts,
 he had all the extravasanceshe desired: no televisiotr,                            And a vast assonment of others with memory
                                             "My idea of                                                                        and
                                                                                  troubles, sore backs, blurry vision, headaches,
                             no
 no radio, no newspaper, computers.
 pure bliss,"he says,  "is no in{ormationat a11."
                                                                                     I have also noticed a problern with my own memory
                                                                                  and have had coundess conversations with others as
                OFOVERTOAD
III. THEPSYCHOLOGY                                                                they tried to recall in vain where they came across
                                                                                                                       "We'reexceptional
                                                                                  somespeciicpieceof information.
How did we come to a point where our own tools of                                 at storing information," explains UCLA memorv
enlightenment would cause such distress? Ours is a                                expen Robert Bjork. "But there are retrieval limita-
culture of knowledge,an age of reasonrooted in the                                tions. Ive get overloaded. know the name of that
                                                                                                              We
16rh- and 17th-century            scientificinquiry of Coperni-                   high school friend. It is in our memory somewhere,
cus,Galileo,and Newton. Communications                     haveb€en               but we can't quite get to it." The specificculprit
the lifebloodofcivilization. But in our roaringtechno-                            involvedin our increasingly                   he
                                                                                                                spotrymemories, savs,
logical prosperity, we have, so far, ignored the lesson                           is "cue overload."Memory is storedaccording speto
Marshall Mcluhan taughr us decades                  ago:that every                ci6c cues-contexts within which the information is
technology has service effects and disserviceeffects-
positiveand negative                           for
                              consequences societn                                The problem comes when the contexts begin to
     Physically, are what we are. So while we like
                   we                                                  to       vanish in the seao{ data. Perhaps,                  like me, you now
think ofhumansas adapBblecreatures,                   the plain truth           re.rdnearly    everyT ott rhe.ame
                                                                                                         hing                     computer         .creen.   in
i ' r h a r b e c a u . eo u r c o m p l e n D n dl o n g e r i r y . w e o r e
                         of                  a                                  the samesittingposition,in the samespot in the same
not nearly as quick to physicallyadapt as are many                              roorn. Perhapsthe maiority of your conversatronsnow
other species.       Our brains have remainedstructurally take place over the same phone in the same chair.
                                                                                "when rnany different things get associatedwith tbe
consist€ntfor over 50,000 years, yet exposureto
processed       infornation in this centuryhasincreased                by                                                                  oo e
                                                                                s a m e s , r u : t i o n a l c u e c , " e t p l a r n t lB iu 'rrk .g o i n g t o
a factor of thousands (lately, the volurne and speedof                          have  a greater di{Gculty remembering any one oI those
         Ovedoad,
lnfomotion          of
               Concept                                                                                              399


things. \(/ith information overload, reftieval becomes       over algebra," w$te the Times' Steven Greenhouse
more dif6cult."                                              it]' 1993.
    This aew surfeit of choicealso threatens     our iden-
                                                               Republiah nath%ati.iahs attd.h thePresident's     plan
                           .
tities, our spiritual selves In Zefl and tbe Att of Motor-
qtcle Mainteltdnce, Robert Pirsig offers a practical           as a tax-aul-spend   scheme,asseftiflBtbdt it ihclrdes
solution to the existential alienation people suffer in        $1.75 tn $13 it tax iacreases ererydollar ia spend-
                                                                                           for
                                                               ibg cuts.Mt Cli"ton's au,nbertlt .herc lespondtbat
modern society: His prescdption is for people to re
                                                               r is a pnden, balan,ed pLan. uith oft doLl ifl tpl
attach themselvesto the technologiesthat they depend
on by learning how they work. As "sophisticated" aswe
                                                               enk tar incretlses fol each dollat ifl speflAins .uts.
                                                                Which is ight ifl this battle of the al.rldtors? The
are, he argues, we still need to feel connected to our
                                                               aflstuel, ih the neLet netur la"d of Aneican polni6,
world in a rudimentary way. But Pirsig'sideas,assound
                                                               is that both sides arc, dependinq on boa oae cuts the
as they are, are becoming obsolete. As the sophistica-
tion of the machinery increaseseach year, his solution
                   is
of reattachment increasingly                  to
                                  unavailable us.Sadly,          Journalists and newsconsumersalike are stymied by
we arecreatinga world so complexthat eachof us will           rbe modernrendency \tatistjc.ro arguein e\er)
                                                                                       of
mderstandlessand lessaboutit.                                 dire(tion.Anyonewho har anemptedro conscien
                                                              tiously research medicalor political issuehas con
                                                                                a
                                                              fronted this problem directly. The endlessanalysisis so
                                                              overwhelming, it is difficult to know how and when to
  IV. ANATYSIS        PARALYSIS
                                                              decide.
                                                                 On National Public Radio's AII Things C,ansidered
     Shouldyor tuinh .offeea . . Hardly a nonth goesbjl
                              .
                                                              one evening,reporter Chitra Ragavanis tr.r.ingto make
                        of
     eitho,t the rclease let dnothd studylinkins coffee
                                                                    of
                                                              sense the latestcancer    studl which doesnot compon
     ot .affeineto sone undesitubleheabheffector absolu-                              "Ifyou don't havesomelevelof
                                                             with previousstudies.
     ihg it of d sBtected hazad. But alnost tuithout fail,
                                                             confusionabout how to interpretthis study,"the Na
     su.h repoftsarc soot fo oued by stadiesthat fail to
                                                             tional Cancer Institute's Philip Taylor tells Ragavan,
     conlitu enhetthe nsksot the benefrts.                    "you should."
                         -JaneE.B.odr, Ncl Yo* Ttflcs
                                       The
                                                                 Inconclusive results, Ragavan reports. More studies
    The proliferation o{ expert opinion has usheredin a      needed.   "Other large studies  now underwaymay help
 vinual aoarchy of expertise. To follow the news today       clear the confusion," shesuggests   hope{rlln But in her
 is to have the surreal understanding that the eanh is       optimisq sheis ignoring the sourceof contention. It is
 melnng     azd theearrhis cooling;  th.r nuclear  poweris   our tools that have gonen us into this rnessin the first
 safe and nuclear power is not sa{ei that afnrmative         place. With a majority o{ U.S. workers now paid to
 action works-or waitj no it do€s not. In the era of         churn out data, we have generateda morass of expert
limitless data, there is always an opportunity to crunch     inJormationthat has stanedto underminelogical ap
some nore numbers, spin them a bit, and prove the            proaches to deliberation and problem solvins. Re
opposite.Would iobs have beensained or lost under            sponding to a report that there have been more than
Bill Clinton'scomprehensive      healthcareplan?Is dioxin    100,000studiesconducted depression, Univer
                                                                                            on            the
as dangerous we oncethoughrl Do rrramin.pre
                  a'                                         siry of Chicago's Larry V, Hedges pleads, "Is this a
vent cancerl Vith the widening pool of elaborate sensible              situationl Do we really needmoredata?"
rrudies argumenrs ever)srde
           and             on           oFevery   que\rion.     The studies pour in at such a rate, in fact, that a
more expert knowledge has, patadoxically, led ro less new 6eld of statistics "meta-analysis"-has            suddenly
                                                             emerged make sense the glut. Meta-analysis,
                                                                        to             of                         thc
    The Na.u York Tines aptly calls this phenomeron          study of studies,is a method of combining pools of
"volleys of data." Statistics and hard
                                           facts are one of  statistics fiom a wide range of studiesand making a
the fundamental      ingredients ofa just and civil society; comprehensive    analysis        on
                                                                                       based thewhole. Data from
but as with other forms of in{ormarion, it rums out          hundreds of different examimtions into wherrcr car-
that too much of a good thing can have unwelcome feine causesbreast cancer will be pooled together into
consequences.      The dramatic reduction in the cost        one giant studp Though the approach dates back to
of informationproductionanddistributionhasushered 1904,when Englishstatistician                Karl Pearson useddata
in an era of seeminsly     erdl€ssargumentation.    "Much    from a rangeofvaccinations corcludethat theywere
                                                                                            to
of the Congressional      battle about President  Clinton's ineffective, meta-analysiswas all but Iorgoten until the
economic package could come down to a duel                    le80\. whenirusrrrred    r.rearthenbesdn rurn ro ir
                                                                                                         ro
400                                                                                                     tnfomatbnoverlaad,    of
                                                                                                                         ConcePt


as a way out of their statisticalconfusion.By 1992,           is . . . aryumentation itself. Journalist Michaei Kinsley
meta-analysis socommonit wasfornally endorsed
                was                                           calls this "Stat Wars." Factionalism      gets a big boosr
by the National Research     Comcil.                          from the volleysof      data, while dialosueand consen-
   Does it work? We may never know. The modern                sus the manow of denoctacy-rur thinnerandthin
confusion created by the glut of statistics also plagues      r€r every year "Facts can have the samestnpefying
this would-be solution. Meta-analysis, sums up the            eflect asimageso{ flag factodes and {urloughed felons,"
jonnal S.ien.e, is a "controversial method that bas           wntesDaniel       Pirk,u ho.r\ , lcq2.dmp.rign    srrrregi.r
provoked disputein everyfieid to which it has been            for SenatorBob Keffen useda computer to        toy with the
applied.... lDespitethis,] proponentsof the nethod            trumbers Bill Clinton'seconomicproposals older
                                                                           in                                    in
argtre thatwhateverproblems       therearein the rechnique    to speciously     argue that Clinton plannedto cut $7-5
                                                                                                "Facts," Pink saysI'om
will haveto bc dealtwith, because     thereis no otherway     billion from SocialSecurity.
                                                              expedence,      "can manipulateand mislead."Nowhere
to handlethe explosionof data."
   The statisticalanarchy freezesus in our cerebral           arethe statwarsmoreheated        than in Washington,  D.C.
tracks. The psychological     reactionto such an overn        Irom CNN's Crossfre:
bundance nIormrrion
            of               and compering    e\perropin
                                                      "You      ?A? EUCHANAN, Co-Host: Atkd8as tu6 lounh
ions is to sinply avoid coming to corclusions.                  hishestih teenpresndn., tuhet [Dr Joyre|y4Eaets]
cant choose.ny one study, any one voice, any one                 toak auet. Notu, it s se.ond or frst- Ufltler hel plogratu
spokesperson a point of view," explainspsycholo
                for                                              of .ondom ,listuibution a"d the rest, STD'S,ser"alb
gist Robert Cialdini. "So what do you do? It turns out           trdnsnitte.l diseases, the in ideflce of thw haue
                               't
that the aNwer is, you do do anything. you reserue
j&dgment. Yov w air ^fld seewhat the predominance of
                                                                 DR. WATTER ,|'AGGETI Ndtio@l Medicdl Aso.i
opinion evolves be." "But," Cialdini contiDues,
                  to                                   con
                                                                 dtioi: voL tdke it o't of .afltext. Pdt- Thlt s the prcb'
fronting the paradox,"I don't know that we havethe               lem. Agdih, tbe teefldgepleg@lc! rate in Atkdnas-
lunry to wait that long, in modernlife."                         the nte ofindease has de.redse.!.
   As the amount o{ inJormation and competing claims             MICHAEL KINSLEY, Co Host: Akd the ftte of ifl'
stretches  toward infinity,the concernis that we may be          .'?tue in \rba6as is totuprthah thc |eof 'naca*ir
on rhe rerge"l r rhole new rive ol inde.'rtenec':                tbe rcst of the .ounhy.
paratysisby analysis.In this way, technologybrings                RALPH REED, The Christl.ln Codlition: No, it isb t
                                               as
with it yet anotherinternal contrad;ction: it speeds             Betueefl 1987 abd 1992, teek preg@n.y indeaed M
 up our world in the nameoI ef6ciency productivity,
                                         and                      q ' b d r " N b , f i f i t a P e ^ e n t .d t t h P I i w P t t ' d t i ' u a s
it alsoconstricts  lational thinking.                            ifl.redsing dt liue per.eftt at the fldiofldl dueldge It\
   Civilizarionhasthrived on an increasing      diet oI sci
                                                                 Sottes 4 lot eoBe.
 enceand other reliabl€ statistics.Applied dara have             MICIIAE], (INSTEY Tle na*ti. I sM uds seven
 answered   millions of important questions    about how
                                                                 rpe4pe,.ent tk 4tba"rds.hu' .t ua' 1{htttk f.tPq' tn
 to live a betterlife. But with loday\ mnaway paceof
 information,we may have come upon too much oI a
 good thing- lnformation may want to be f.ee,but thnt           ln our nation's capital, supplying grist for endless
 freedomin and of itself is not enoughto support hu-          policy debatesh.s becomea vital industty over the past
 rnanity. We also dependon information's htegrity, and        several decades.Public relations agenciesprofit hand-
 not a linle discipline.                                      somely for faruring debates,and television shows such
                                                              as Crossfre are specifically designed to cxploit the en-
   BOB ED\YARDS: so!ftdslike it'sco,sttu.tedsothat
                     It
                                                              tenainment value o{ the stat war phenomenon. The
   alt of you, fton botl blM.hes of solenmdt antl is          chargescome flying back and fonh across the table as
   bath parTies, cdh ndLe ehateuet .lditu you .dre ta         furiously as a pingpong ball. But there is no refereeand
                                                              no official scoring; the show always ends before vrewers
   IORMER CONGRESJM,IN TOM DOVNEYi                            have time to gaugethe accuracy of the shots. Sraytuned
   That's er.i.tly tight.                                     for tomorrow night, when a new volley of stats will be
   FORMER CONGR-ESSMAN          VaN wErER: I/yo,?.
                                                              on view -*upplied at no charge by D.C.'s stat war
   skillful.... h deperx on tuhatyoumeasfiea uhen             munitions factories. To stock up on data, lobbyists
                                                              and Crossfre producers need only flip through a locai
            - Fron Narion.l PublicRadio\ Moning Editiofl

  Becausenearly any argument inaginable can now be              With purpose{ully vague and {olnidable nanes such
'upported u,rh rn impre*ive Jar, .er. r\e b'g u,nne-          as Institute {or Responsive Government and the
                                                                             :
         Ove         of
Infumation ood,Con.ept                                                                                             401


National Centerfor Policy Analysis,hundredsof so             Sollifto."ThaCs aboutevery
                                                                              just           journalistin rheworld.
calledthink tankshavepoppedup in our nationt cap-            They are cross-re{erencedin a tier Iorm-national
italsince the late 1960s.Staffed  with someoI the most       rnedia,regionalmedia,trade press,    foreignpress,and
skilled polemicistsand statisticians the land and
                                         in                  then cross-referenceilby interest code-people inter-
generously    supportedby U.S. corporationswith spe          ested in the environmert, in economics, in othet
ciic political agendas,  their task is to producemoun-       topics." With an incessant  stleam of articles,books,
tains of data to supportpartisanpolicy objectives.    In     surveys,and shristical analyses,AEII 45 scholars
the stat war enviroiment, bulk is ofren as critical as       are constandychurning out material. "Everyone 's
qualiry "In the Washinglonswirl, where {ew people            expected produce,"Sollitto explains."Thereisn't a
                                                                       to
have the tine actually to read the rcports thcy debate,"     policy issue thatve're not somehow   working on."
explains cregg Easterbrook in a definitive report on the        Think tanks ale not the only insdtutions to have
think tank culture for the Atlantic Monthly, "rcspect-       become   rnformarion                   As
                                                                                   hyperprodu.er.. informarion
ability is oftenproportionalto tonnage.    Themore stud-     technology has made researchJword processing, and
iessomeone     tosses the table,the morelikely he is to
                     on                                      publishingall dramaticallycheaper,  tensof millions of
win hispoin.."                                               u' have beco-e ou oqn rhir'l ranls-purrirg ou-
                       are        o{
   Theseinstitutions masters contention. good    A           ideasonto paper or disk and seeking audience
                                                                                                    an          fot
many o{ them are expressly                  in
                              uninterested an earnest        ourthoushtsand opinions.                    and
                                                                                         Webhomepases neigl
pursuit of the truth. "We're not here to be somekind of      borhood 'zines have turned millioDs of citizensinto
Ph.D.committee     givingequaltime," says   BurronPines,     glatizens rcpotterc, publishers, and broadcasters.
a leaderof the right-wing HeritageFoundaiion."Our            The nedia are us. \0e are not just splashins arourd in
role is to provide consenativepublic-policynakers            the informationglut. \7e are alsocreatingit.
with arguments bolsterour side.We'renottroubled
                  to
over this. There are plenty of thir* ta*s on the other
                                                             V. THE         EFFECT
                                                                   TWO-BY-FOUR
   As a matter of fact, though,sincethe late 1970s,the
think tank field hasbeenheavilydominared corporby            In a glutted environment, the most difaculr task is nor
ate money and conservativepolitical philosophy. V/ith        gettingone'smessage but Fndinga receptive
                                                                                    out,                        audi
dozens of corporatist, free-enterpriseinstrtutrons           ence.  As psychologist  StanleyMilgram explainedin
 (Cato,Manhaftan,and Hudson Institutesjthe Reason            1970, individualsadapt to stimulusoverloadby allo'
l-oundation;the Ethicsand PublicPolicy Center,       etc.)   cating lesstime to eachinput; blocking reception when-
pushingfor lower taxesand lessregulation,     "conserva-                    and
                                                             everpossible, installingfilteringdevices keepthe
                                                                                                         to
tive commentators have rheir liberal counteryans out-        number o{ inputs down to a manageablelevel. Meta-
gunnedby a wide margin," writesEasterbrook.                  phorically speaking, plug up our ears,pinch our
                                                                                    we
   The AmericanEnterprise   Institute(AEI) is oneofthe       noses,cover our eyeswith dark sunglasses, step and
oldest and most influential pro-business    think tanks      into a body suit linedwith protective padding.
in town. Established 1943 by industrialist l-ewis
                        in                                     But this is not the eod ofthe srory Inevitabln some-
Brown, it caught the conservative     tide in rhe early      one wishes to anact the anention o{ our overloaded,
 1980s, morethan tripling in size.A substatrtial  portion    $ell-prorecred  sdblecr. Inrurri!ely. communicator
                                                                                                  rhe
of its multimillion dollar budget comes from dcfense         respondsto theseDew barrierswith b:rier-prercing
contractorsjpharmaceutical     companies,and banks.                              In
                                                             countermeasures. order to make contac. with the
The institute's mission, explainsVincentSollitto,AEII        person wearing earplugs, he raiseshis voice. To catch
dire.rorof mcdiarelJ[o.\, -i\ to do .ub.ranrive        re    rhe eye of rhe person with sunglasses, usesbrighter
                                                                                                    he
search public poticy issues, makesurethat Con
       on                       to                           Iighs.To make.rnimp,esionon someonc          wca'iaga
gressis aware of all the possible  options. . . especially   Ior ofprotectivepadding,he givesthat person whack
                                                                                                            a
the onesthat reflect our own personalcore bel;eIs-{ree       on the head.The predicament become common
                                                                                             has        so
market,limited government,    free and {air trade,com-       that there'salreadya popularU.S.expression it "I
                                                                                                            fclr
petitiveenterprise, personal propertyr;ghts,individual       had to hit him in the head with a two by-four to get his
responsibility,and a strong and vibrant national
                                                               Arld so it is thar our glutted sociery is victimized by
  Sbapingthe mood of Washington begi$ vith expert            what we might call the "two by four effect." The two-
pressplay, and every think tank has a point person to        by-{our e{fect provides humanity wiih a way to keep
coordinatethe constantflow. "I probably have four            communication     alive in a gltrttedenvironment.   But in
ro 6ve.housand  rournrlr\r\ or'ny ,y\iem. e*rimare\          so doing,  it extracts a he{ty price: Society, as we ar
t+02                                                                                                               ove        of
                                                                                                         lnfotnation oad,Concept


know from experience, is becoming inexorably more                                                   by
                                                               library equally accessible all who are connect€d,
       \7e
crass. are witnessing new reign of trash
                             the                      televi-                     the
                                                               only enhances sensation.                 Web pagesar€ as varied
sion, hate radio, shock    jocks, tort litigation, publicity   as hrmanity itself and yet they are all connectedto one
stunts,and exccssively    violent and sarcastic  lhetoric-     another. With the Web, it is a small world after all-
   Historica  y, discouneousness and vulgarity have            between12 and 20 inchesdiagonally, dependingon the
always signified a lack o{ sophisticationi        garishness size ol one's computer scrcen.
was considered                                In
                 tasteless degrading. today'sat-
                            and                                   But the global village is only one side o{ the coin.
tenrion-deficit sociery however, people have learned           Among StanleyMilgram's list of human responses                           to
                                                      pro6t,   stimulusoverloadwas this observation:                    "Specialized
that churlish behavioris the key to headlines,
ard power. Outrageousbehavior by individuals is                institutionsare createdto absorb inputs that would
rewarded   with wealth and     influence.                      otherwise swamp the irdividual." Indeed, the informa-
   lnformation technology has transformed the        general   tionized world has also {ollowed this prophecy, as can
publicinto a giantlay media,andin sodoing,ithas also           be heardwith a simpleglide down any U.S.radio dial.
bestowed upon us glutizens the quintessential media            Here we are confronted by the somds o{ a severenew
burden: to grab an audience.        Everyon€want to be         cultural fragrnentation: {rcim hip-hop to cool jazz to
heard (or read or watched).If the media are now us,                                                         l
                                                               d e J | h c r a r o i u s i o no t l a s s i cq 6 0 s h r t s t o . w i n g t o
                                                                        m      l             t
then we all have the same       problem of seeking getto       grungeto public radio news to shock talk-no two
                                                                                                                   "It's all getting
attention in a world full of glutted, distract€d people.       stations sound even remotely alike-
Sincewe are at once victims o{ the glut and glutizens          nichier and nichier now, more and more fragmented,"
who contributeto it, we are simultaneously         casualties saysLee Abrams, managing director of the ABC Satel-
of the two-by-foureffectand its patrons.                       lite RadioNetwork. Dozensofthesenarrowly tailored
   As such a desensitizer,the two-by-four effect may           radio formats have sprung up ir the past few decades.
also{reeze someof our bestmindsfrom the main
            out                                                   Channel    surfingon anycable-Tvsystem a similarly    is
srream  ofpublic debate.Ifonehasto be sensational         and  disjointinsexperience, is browsinsa newsstand
                                                                                               as                                    that
dramatic to  gain attention, what doesthat portend for         features hundreds of niche magazines-{rom Bac&
the insightful, brilliant rninds whose ideas do not lend       pacher to Cigar Afcionado to Home Offce Cnnqlrt'
themselvesto MTV videos or flashy Web pages? our       If      r'?8.one or more ior every vocanon and avocation
attention naturally gravitatestoward the Madonnas known to humankind. As society becomesmore and
and Howard Stems of the world, who gets le{t behind            more vimral, the fragmentation and political pohriza-
in the dust? Ironicalll the two-by-four effect sup-            tion will only increase.In         1994;thetust majorpolitical
presscsthose individuals whom we most desperately survey of                 Irternet politics revealed, not surprisingly,
                                                                                                                                    "Vir-
needin our complex times-th€ peoplewho are willing             a virtual world in a state of hypedragmentation.
                                                                                         researchers     reponed,     "resemble        the
to confront life'sambiguities.                                 tunl communities,"
                                                               semi-pdvate spacesof modern                health clubs more than
                                                               rhe public'paces .rgora.. . . Instead meering
                                                                                       of              .              ol                ro
                                                               discussaod debate issuesof common                    concern to the
VI. VIttAGEOFBABEL                                             society,membersof thesevinual communitiesmeet
                                                               largely to promote their own interestsand to r€inforce
A. The Stretchingand Splint€ringof Cutturc
                                                               their own like-mindedness. They tend to exclude
The global village has arived. In this shrunkenelec- anyone who disagrees. a consequence,        As                           howeveg
tronic world, CNN, MTV, ar'd the wall Streetlournal            they also reinforce the         fragmentation and Iactionalism
want yor, whether you happen to be in Taipei or                of modem society."
c.eenwich Villase. Telephones,       televisions,  satellites,    From this vantage pointj it appearstlat rather thal
and computers    havemadegreatphysical         distances  ob-  our world becominga cozy village, we are instead
solete by allowing instant communication between retreatins itrto an electronic Tower o{ Babel, a global
virtually anyone,and that hasled to somenearlyuni-             skyscraper.Rather than based around a town square,
versalcultural phenomena.       National Basketball    Asso- the new information technology clusters us into social
ciation gamesare seer in more than 100 different cubicles.There are fewer central spaces                             and not even a
countries. Toyotacarscan be purchased 151 differ-
                                              in               common channel. In 1978, three television networks-
ent countries.  Coca-Cola                        in
                              can be consumed 185 dif-         ABC, CBs, and NBc-captured 90% of the U.S.
ferentcoutries-seven more countriesthan thereare               prime-time tel€vision viewing audience. Over the
memberso{ ttre United Nations. The blossoming              of  follo{'ing decade,that figure dipped to 64y". Frcm
rheWorldlvide Web.runcrionrng a slobrlelecrronic 1,980 to 1,990, while circulation dropped at general
                                      a.
lnfomotion ood,concept
         ove         of                                                                                                       t$3


interest magazinessuch as Read.er's    Digest, Tine, ^nd                                               i"
                                                               A s.iertkt uas exaniking the leecbes d ftdrsh tuhen
L'le, there were    nearly 3000 new masazine startups,         Zaatb#ra, thepfophet,dpprod.hed andNked if
                                                                                                       hin
most o{ them extremely narrow h their scope."There's           he uds d spe.idlkt ib the eays of the leech-"o, Zar
really no massnedia left," an ad buyer told For&es             athrstua. . . thdt tuotu be som.thing inhe6e: hotu
                                                                        .
m Aazineit 1990.                                               nru I presufte do so! ..That, hoedeL af uhich
                                                                                  to       .
   That is a grossexaggeration. Obviousln massmedia            I dn Mstet akdk to&er,is thebtuti"of thelee.h;thatis
still exist and, in terms of global reach, are more nus-       fly uord! . . . Fol the sdkeof this did I @steuerythins
sive than ever before. But in practical terms, people          eke reide, for the sdke of tbk did derythifts else
spendmore and more of their livesin narow, special             beconeindiffelentto he . . .
ized fields of communication. Massification of cultu'e                         Iriednch          ?r,s
                                                                                        Nietzsch€, Spake    Zarath6rd
        ir
hegan earnesr       wirh the tsrh cenruDprinrlng    pre*       "For the sake of this did everythingelse become
and   got an enormousboost from the 19th century
                                                            indifferent to me." This is our post-modern refrain.
penny press.Since the late 1960s, though, the process
                                                            Pro{essionalspecialization and consumer nichification
has been in full reverse,a communications ftans{orm'
                                                            encroachupon our cotnmon culture. Rather than a
ation to a specialized,  nichecultue.
                                                            healthy swirl of commuriication among citizens of dif-
   Unfolding before us, therefore, are two parallel and                                                        we
                                                            {erent backgrounds and perspectives, are left with a
seeminglycontradictory universes.Much of the world
                                                            hyperefficient cornmunications infrastructure that not
is indeed now tied into one massive electroric inJra-
                                                            only highlights social distinctions, it {ortifies them.
srrucrure, rhewiredplanet also
            bur                  is    be.oming  increa-
                                                               Andy lfarhol had it only panly right. In the future,
ingly fragmented within that wholeness. In fact, this
                                                            we will all be famous for I 5 rninutes-but only within
makes perfect sense. Just as a large cocktail party
                                                            our ertremely specializedcommunities. Surveystend to
breaks up into a string of smau conversations-and
                                                            bear this out, revealing not ignorance, per se, but a
the larger the party is, the more conversations the.e       severe   crisisin colnmon information.Like minds stay
are-follow the people of eanh when they are thrown          in rouch                            bur
                                                                       wirh oaernorher, not with rhecommunir)
together into one vinual village. In order to narntarn
                                                            at large, as nichification suppliesmore ,7auldt o/, than
intimate communicauon, and in order to keep up with
                                                            communication. "There is so much information,"
our own sophisncation, we fragment into tiny clusters
                                                            laments pollster Andrew Kohut, "that in some sense,
within our global skyscraper.                                                                                  d el I
                                                            p e o p l e r h r o w r h e i r h a n d s u p a f lWs aly .m B o i n g t o
                                                                                                                    .
   \ € specialize.In medicine, law, 6nance, real estate,
                                                            {ocus on this very narrow part of the world.' People
engineering,education, and every other professronlm                                                  Look magazine in the
                                                            who used to read L;fe a
asinable.   Workershavespecialized    their tasksto cope    '50s now are great experts at motorcycles and spenda
wirh rhe explo'ionof inlormation.       Specirli/arion is
                                                            lot of time rcading Motorcycle Wo d. And wnar
how we apply our vast knowledge to many trying chal-
                                                            happens on the covet of Life and loo& comparably
lenges rhehumanrace.
        of                   how we go abourimprovirg
                                                            is missed."
our quality of life. By narrowing our range of interest,
                                                               This does not mean things are getting worse for
we are able to delve further into crucial details of an     democracy. But it does mean that our contemporary
issue.As a result, we develop more effective tr*tments
                                                            sociai goal of achieving a truly just society has a sur
for disease,nore durable matedals and building
                                                            prising impediment built right in. This helpsexplain the
designs,more comfortable and liglter weight fabrics,                       inU.S. politicalknowledge            overthe past 50
                                                            stagnation
                                                            years, even as Americans were formally educatedto an
   It is not tust limited to our careers. Our consum€r
                                                            unprecedented        degree.we face a paradox of abun-
lives have also become much more specialized,
                                                            dan e iadu.ed amnesia.The mure ,nj.rmrtion we
allowing us to clinb more deeplyinto obscure     hobbies
                                                            come upon, the more we narrow our Iocus. The more
and acquire exotic {oods.      at marketerscall "nichi6-
                                                            we knoq the lesswe know. The vicious spiral drives a
carion-ii, in tucr, imponanr
                     an           pan ot our improring
                                                            growing wedge between people within different
qualitT of life. But there is also a big price paid. In a                                                                       "a
                                                                                            We
                                                            spheres knowledge. are, as Earl Shorrissays,
                                                                       o{
wotd, it is separation. "[As] the role of each medical
                                                            nation of lonelymolecules."
pracritioner   logi(all)                docrorwriresrn
the Joulndl of the American Metlical Association,              Specializationnakessbep lalkelsof 's all; thesLobal
"lthere is al tendencyfor compartmentalizing of patient        oilhse prcdi.tetl.by the seercof tbe 1960'sis beiks
needs,and for failure of sensitive dialogue wnh each           rcpla.ed by ebctronn cottd4.spopuldtedby isolated
patient."This, in a rutshell, is the paradox of special                                                   Il
                                                               &eaners. We do rot knotu oh aeishborc. tue are
ization: it fuels progress,but also increasesisolation.        fnlhcial e'pens, oe  drc spee.htess the prcsen.e
                                                                                                  in            at
tto4                                                                                         tnfomation           of
                                                                                                            conceqt
                                                                                                      Ovenodd,


   lesearch .henists; if ee are schaLats, tue cdnnot hdke        watchingthenightly newsor reading big city paper.
                                                                                                         the
   aut the Eritua.es of netchants. Ve be a kation of             lge will spendeven lesstime interactingwilh people
                                                                 outside our range of interests.Indeed, even those
                          Ead Shoris, A Nzt.r   o/sdlesr.r       forums that appearto be projecdngan imageof ubi-
                                                                 quity may 6e more oI a global villagemiragethan the
    \(/ith the Internet, this trend is exaggeraed. Three         real thing. Reader'sDigest, for example the epitome
hundred million Web pages(and counting) brins us                 o{ the general  interestmagazine-is also quietly going
moreinformationthan everbeforeand,became this,         of        niche.They havecommissioned        Claritasto develop the
lcss information is srdled Like niche radio and cable            means to distribute     differcnt ed;'tions to each of
TV, the Net encounges a cultural splinteriflg that caD           PRIZM'S 62 djfferent l;festyle segments.
render physicalcommunitiesmuch less relevantand                     To be fair, a world of tribes, subcultures, and clans
freepcoplelron h.rvrng climh ourside
                                 ro                their own     can be invigorating, and dchification has been a geat
biases,assumptions,         and inherited ways of thought.       gift to many people.Previouslydisenfranchised        soci-
This is perhaps       bcst evidenced the ominousemer-
                                      by                         eties are empoweredby new technologies           allowing
gence so called"srnan agents,"
         of                             which autonatically      ihem to communicate cheaply and withort geogaphic
filter out information deemed irrelevant to the cus-             limitation. cays and lesbians, {or exanrple, who are
tomer. IBM'S "ln{osage," for example,boaststhat it               itrherently dispersedthroughout society,have benefited
"brings only th€ news and information you want to                tremendously from online forums that provide them
read right to your desktop.. . . Basedon a personal              with the opporrunity to share their intimate thoughts
profileyou createiour sophisticated        search technology     aboutwhat it means be gay,practicalconsiderations
                                                                                       to
probesover 2,200 sources          and deliversarticlesrelated    aboutliving a healt\ happylife, andpracticalwaysto
only to your topics."                                            band rogetherand force politiciansto take them ser
    while fiiterins mechanisms atr increasinsly neces-
                                    arc                          iou'l) a( .r groupof cflrzen\  $llh importrnrinrercns.
sary life componentin the informatioDsociety,           auto'    The sane can be said of the opponunitiesaffordedto
matcd sman agents         like lnfosageposea grentdanger,        lingdsts, Latinos, teenagers,   environmentalists,   ethi-
precisely     becaose   they are so effectiveat weedingout       cists,folklorists,engineers, documentariansJ   therapists,
unwanted in{ormation. Imagine having a butler who                moviebuffs,studiomusicians,      plumbers,  and heelance
was turder strict instructions to tuJrn away all phone           writers. Being able to share onet     personal thoughts,
callers and visitors whose names were not on his                 arnbitions,acconplishments,      trials, and tribulations
screening You would succeed limitiDgyour con
              list.                     in                       with othcr like-minded   people part of the joy of being
                                                                                                 is
tactswith people,but at the cost o{ nevermaking any
new acquaintances. similar fashio& smalt agents
                           In                                       Nichification also has less vital but still meaningful
managethe in{ormation glut by eliminating serendipit-            bene6ts.  The general   populationenjoysa much wider
ousidormation from our lives.Accidentally           stumbling    variety of foods, music, theateq film, and other crafts
onto entirelynew and interesting        subjectmarer in the      than in any time in oDr history. \7e are richer for
mannerthat is common in a conventionallibrary be-                widening our experience. But there is a great danger
.omes much l(.' l,lely in a.u'romizedrnIormrtjon                 here o{ mistaking cultural tribalism for real, shared
etrvironment.       (NicholasNegroponteinsiststhar smart         understanding. is one thing to dine in Morocco, or
                                                                                  It
                                                   'serendip-    in a surrosate Moroccoin Greenwich      Vllage' andquite
agents and shouldincludean adiustable
          can
ity dial," but one cannot automatespontaneiry)This               anotherto share    with Moroccansthe responsibility    of
severely    limits much of what it means behnmanm a
                                            to                   maintaining a democratic       communi+ A pluralistic
{ree,liberal societyin which sharedideasand experi-              democracy    requires certainamountof tolerance
                                                                                       a                              and
enceare vital. Sucha restrictionis lantamountto con              conscnsus,  rooted in rhe                         a
                                                                                             ability to understand wide
structingone'sown informationprison.Wemustmake                   ! ariery                 and
                                                                         olper.pecu!e\ agree common on           que'tion'.
an e{fon to avoid filters like tn{osagethat all-too-neatly       In the United States,  we increasingly speakvery differ
apportionus into seaied        information cubicles.  Instead    ent languagesand differen dialects of the same lan
of delegating filtering to automatic smart agents, w€            guage.We share fewer metaphors,icons, historical
should make our own decisions           and act as our own       interests, and current news events.Bill Gates'scele-
                                                                 brated  "asynchrony" but an eloquentway of saying
                                                                                         is
filters.
    Unlesswe do, technologywill lead us in the other             rhrt in our ne* e'.ctronicworld of endle.s      communi
                                   world' where  ,nlo.qntion     cationoptions,we are     "out ofsynch" with oneanother.
direcrion.     rorard narrower
is tailored to o specifc professional,        cultural' polit-      The Net helps exclusive groups come together
ical,and leisurely                We
                       interests. will sp€nd   evenless   time   to form an even tighter bond. Communitiestend
    tnfonationOvedood,   of
                    Concept                                                                                                    405


    to be naturally inclusive.In so doing, it fostersnot            Other presidentialcontenders  spokeduing the 1996
    commudties, as many like to claim, but fa' mote              campaign the importance mity. President
                                                                             o{                of                 Clinton
    limited microcultures.                       of
                             Someproponents the World            declared that "we can't rcstore the American dream
    Vide Web strongly take issuewith this interpretation,        unless we can find sorne way to bring the American
    arguing that the Web, with its hyperlinking structure,       peopleciosertogether."   Bob Dol€ adoptedan English
                                                                                                   "we need the glue of
    actually encouragesinterdisciplinary thought and             fust plank on the grounds that
    brord, muh cclru"alcommunicJtion.           Afre' rl'. nny   language help hold us tosether" But any leaderis
                                                                            to
    Web.urter. rn 8,, fror',rhe( onrrcr wiLhAm.rira ro           goingto find cohesiveness increasingly
                                                                                           an               diffcult chal-
     Ar\ | AJam.photocrrph. \'rrld \ ar ll hisrory J
                                 ro                        in                               of
                                                                 lenge.The fragmentation consumer         cultue has co-
t                                                                                            "L€adership harderin an
    naaer of a {ew clicks of a mouse.    whilc it is tnie that   optedour political culture.               is
    \0eb browsing allows for an extremely diverse infor-         ageof decentralized rnedia,"opines    RobertVright. "In
    mation experience, end result is still very much a
                          the                                    the old daysa President couldgivea prime time talk on
    situationofextremenichifcation inwhich Websurfers            all three networks and know that he had everyone's
    areencouraged explorethe personal
                      to                        rangeof inter-    rnenrjon.Bur LI"i''on ot fo,um r. disappearirg       r.
    estsand are rewarded     with highly specifcinformatron      conservatives watch National Empowerment Televi
    on those irterests as well as electronicinteractlons         sion,natutebu{Iswatch rheDiscovery       ChanDei, sports
    witi peoplewho sharethoseinterests.                          {answatch ESPN."
       In this way, nichificationand asynchrony [nder
                                                    are                                             it
                                                                    Aftcr two centuries vigilaDce, is alrnost
                                                                                       of                       surrealto
    lying reasons the troLrbling
                   {or               levelof socialpolariza-     imagine that thc republic will suffer rnonal blows {rom
    tion plagxing the United Statesin modern times,the           cableTV. But the power of this splinteringtechnology
    nast). disagreemerts seeming
                           .nd          inability ofpeople ro    should not be underestimated.    The "geo waste" that
    ,ome rogerher form c
                     ro                     imponlnr i-ue'.      niche marketing helps marketers avoid is also another
    "vhen was the last time you talked about race wirh           word for shareddiscourse,     somethingwe desperately
    someone a diflerent race?"Bill Bradleyis fond of
               of                                                need to support our pluralistic culture. Somewhere
                                            "If                  along the line, we seemto have inadverrentlycon-
    askingcivic groupsin his speeches. the answerrs
    neverJ  youire pan of the problem." His implication,         structed an information economy that works directly
    rhat we're losingtorch with one anothe! and that it is       against crucialdemocratic  tenets.
    driving our phralistic societyinto the ground,is partly
    a {turction of infornation technology. Cdn't we all get      see Atso th€ FoltowingArticles
    a/ozgi Under such fragmented       conditions,without a
                                                                 CELLULAR TEI,EPHONY . COM?UIER NTJI'I/OR(S .
    lingua franat naybe rcl
                                                                 I]I,I.]CTROMC COMMERC! . I]LECTRONIC MAIL . HEALTH
       The anxietycaused thisculturalbalkanization
                            by                             has   AND MEDICAI REFORTING . INIORMAITON SOCIETY .
                                              to
    led to a natural yearningIor someone ride into the           INTERNI]I . NEW MEDLT
    White House on a white horse and make us wnore
    again. V/e desperately    want to belong to something
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    rionalcluhr.we rirer.rlly need belong a n,tion.
                                       ro         r"             clenk, J. (1999).r6tzl: Trc ,4.celqdnd of l"n Aboat Eterythias.
                                                                    ?anrheon, New Yort-
    Ard when we feel detached,as many do noq it is
                                                                 Shapno,A- L. (1999).Tre Contral Re'.htiofl: Hatu the lntcrnetis
    upsettins.  The 1996groundswell Colin Powellwas
                                        for                         P"ttihc lfldi,idaak in Cbaqe and cbangitg the walld we Ktua.
    rooted in the faith that the general'smoral convictions,        lublic Affairs, New York,
    sharpdecisiveness, quiet decency
                         and                  would inspirea     Shenk, D. (r 997). D,t Su osi Sstrirtks tbe Infoffidtiofl 61"t. Hxt'
               coalitionof divergent             "I
                                      interests. seehim as          percollins,New Yo.k.
    sweeping
                                                                 Shenk,D.(1999).    TrcEdolPrnene: Mare Notesof cautiaa on the
    one oI the last chanceswe have to try and umte our              IflfDmatiafl Rerol,no,. Utlveislty of Indiara P.e$, Bloonin8-
    country againand stop all this poladzationand splin
    tering and fracturing,"declared    Ernestlfatson, leader     Weil, M. M., ard Rosen.L. D. (1997).%.r,ostnsr, \0ilet New
    of Draft Colin Powell's   North Carolinachapter.

				
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