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A Return to Meaning

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Americans began to realize that they had to take action to limit the physical smog and other pollution accruing all around them. Meanwhile, people also became aware of the severe consequences of consuming too many calories and too much fat, and the need to limit their intake. Now a similar challenge befalls citizens of the information age. For our individual well-being as well as the health of our democratic society, we must act now to responsibly limit our exposure to information. The goal should be to maintain and even increase access to reliable and useful communication without compromising a certain social serenity. Fortunately, a number of promising remedies for data smog are available if we stop for a moment to look around us.

* Be your own smart agent. You are responsible for managing your own signal-to-noise ratio, for choosing the information that is accurate, relevant, economical, articulate, and evocative while eliminating anything that blocks out meaning. As your own smart agent, you are also your own data dietitian. Take some time to examine your daily intake and consider whether your info diet needs some fine-tuning-perhaps some data naps in the afternoon, during which you receive no electronic information. Many victims of glut have also found periodic data fasts rejuvenating. One sure way to gauge the value of something, after all, is to go without it for a while.

For example, turn the television off. There is no quicker way to regain control of the pace of your life, the peace of your home, and the content of your thinking. Millions of Americans who have limited their TV viewing have discovered hours of free time with which they can begin to do some of the things they’ve never found time for. My own approach has been to move the offending item from the kitchen/living room into the closet. There it stays except for a few select hours per week, when I lug it out, plug it in and turn it on. After a brief viewing, it goes straight back to the closet. Since the television has been consigned to the closet, my wife and I play more music, we read more, we talk more.

A suggested trade-off: cancel your cable TV service and apply that same $20 per month to one or more good books. Books are the opposite of television: they are slow, engaging, inspiring, intellect-arousing, and creativity-spurring.

Another strategy is to avoid news nuggets. All-news channels, wire services, and top-of-the-hour headlines may be the only common fabric we have left, but that isn’t reason enough to sacrifice your attention span. Spend those five minutes each hour doing something more productive, like conducting one meaningful
conversation.

And recall the playful warning of Michael Dertouzos, head of MIT’s Laboratory for Computer Science, in this magazine (see “Seven Thinkers in Search of an Information Highway,” August/September 1994): “E-mail is an open duct into your central nervous system. It occupies the brain and reduces productivity.” Ask people not to indiscriminately forward trivia. “Unsubscribe” to the Internet newsgroups that you’re no longer really interested in. Tell advertisers who “spam”-send you unsolicited e-mail messages-that you have no interest in their product and ask them to remove you from their customer list.

* Resist advertising and upgrade mania. Remember that upgrades are designed primarily as sales tools, not necessarily to give customers what they’ve been clamoring for.

* Say no to dataveillance. By writing just a few letters putting your name on do-not-disturb lists, you can greatly reduce the amount of junk mail and unsolicited phone calls that come your way.

* Leave the pager and cell phone behind. Are wireless communicators instruments of liberation, freeing people to be more mobile with their lives, or more like electronic leashes, keeping people more plugged-in to their work and info-glutted lives than is necessary and healthy? It is thrilling to be in touch with the world at all times, but it’s also draining and interfering. For sanity’s sake, people ought to be allowed to roam free from the information superhighway for at least some portion of each week.

* Give a hoot, don’t info-pollute. The info glut demands a new kind of social responsibility: an obligation to be more economical about what we say, write, publish, broadcast, and post. Everything from voice-mail messages to office memos to speeches to Web pages should be crisp, clear, and to the point. By reducing the amount of needless information, we will also reduce vulgarity, as people feel less need to be sensational to attract attention. Our tone will become more civil. Our social signal-to-noise ratio will begin to improve. We who have learned not to drink or eat or work to excess will now simply add another virtue to the list.

The payoff for such restraint is high. As we severely limit content, we learn to savor it more. I experienced this paradox firsthand when I asked my brother Jon to film my wedding. He owns a sophisticated Hi-8 camcorder, but he used an old Super 8 instead. In five hours he got through four rolls-12 minutes-of film. Weeks went by while we waited for them to come back from the developer. Finally, we sat down to watch our measly footage. The show was over in a flash, but we were thrilled. The three-minute films are cherished glimpses into our wedding and reception, in marked contrast to an uninterrupted three-hour video that dulls our senses and renders useless our memories. A medium that captures almost everything conveys almost nothing.

* De-nichify. How to change our electronic Tower of Babel into a modern Agora? The answer is easy, though the solution is not. We need to talk to one another.

By reaching out to different cultures and niches, Brian Lehrer, radio host of WNYC’s “On The Line” in New York City, underscores the simple notion that communities work better if people discuss their differences. One highlight is his annual multicultural outreach on Martin Luther King Day, during which he invites listeners to call in and read one-minute excerpts from works about an ethnic group different from their own. On other days Lehrer might conduct informed conversations on Bosnia, teachers’ unions, and date rape. We can’t all have our own radio program, but we can tune in to such shows and read general-interest periodicals; we can make a point to reach across niche boundaries; we can avoid specialized jargon. As we breach cultural divides and pursue interdisciplinary studies, we are engaging in the best kind of education, not simply becoming more efficient at a specialized task but learning how to interface with the rest of humanity.

* Insist that government help defend citizens against data surveillance and data spam. Taking advantange of the good that technology has to offer without choking on the bad will take strong collective effort. Unfortunately, the cyber-libertarian community has made anti-government rhetoric a fashionable part of the information revolution, mostly in response to thoughtless federal legislation. After President Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act in 1996, which aimed excessively to curb speech online, leading cyber thinker John Perry Barlow issued a “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” that rashly proclaimed the Net to be its own world. But the Net is not a new world vested with its own sovereignty; it is a novel and exciting facet of society. Ultimately, the former must fall under the jurisdiction of the latter.

For example, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 made it illegal to use an autodialing phone machine or to make calls with a prerecorded voice. This law should be amended to bar software that automatically plucks e-mail addresses and indiscriminately includes them in marketing solicitations. This new legislation should also establish a “do-not-disturb” registry of names, phone numbers, addresses, and e-mail addresses that all mass marketers would be legally obliged to cross-reference.

Indeed, the ability to gather and analyze information conveniently and cheaply means that personal privacy has replaced censorship as our primary civil liberties concern. What once might have been considered harmless personal trivia- which videos you rented this week, whether you like starch in your laundered shirts, whether you buy name-brand or generic aspirin-can today all be turned into useful intelligence by powerful cross-referencing databases. A company called DejaNews Partners, for example, is copying and cataloging, for marketing purposes, every single message posted to each of the thousands of subject-specific Usenet newsgroups.

To prohibit government agencies and companies from using information for unauthorized purposes, we need a long-sought upgrade of the Federal Privacy Act of 1974, which set severe restrictions on the information government could collect on citizens but ex-empted businesses. Whether you are subscribing to a magazine, buying a modem, signing a petition, renewing your driver’s license, taking a random drug test, enrolling your child in school, or paying your taxes, you should be assured that the personal data you turn over will go no further unless you specifically grant permission. This time, the law should exempt no one.

The Federal Trade Commission can also be an important player in limiting data smog. The FTC’s current policy is that consumers must match their wits against the claims and resources of advertisers. When it comes to “half truths and motivational manipulations,” writes Advertising Age columnist Stanley E. Cohen, “the remedy is caveat emptor.” This hardly seems a fair fight. We need a rejuvinated FTC that criticizes questionable marketing practices and imposes fines.

To ensure that citizens not only have online access to government documents and officials but understand the workings of government, a new Government Information Act must ensure that legislation, regulations, and court rulings as well as tax information is published in formats that any literate person can understand.
Finally, we need to reformulate the issue of information have-nots. The disenfranchised citizens of our country are not in need of faster access to bottomless wells of information but rather better education-high-quality teachers, classroom materials, and buildings. The best way to prevent data smog from settling in is to shift attention and resources toward basic educational infrastructure for all Americans.

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