Shenk, David. Data smog : Surviving the Information Glut
San Francisco: Harper, 1997
I can vaguely recall a phone conversation with a college girlfriend shortly after graduation, which she complained about her office fax machine, yet another appliance sweeping the nation. It wasn’t that her fax didn’t work, but rather that it was working too well. Because it transmitted information across the country and world so quickly, she said, it had actually altered the expectations of work time, becoming a kind of taskmaster that insisted on faster and faster work.
In 1971 the average American was targeted by at least 560 daily advertising messages. Twenty years later, that number had risen sixfold, to 3,000 messages per day. In the office, an average of 60 percent of each person’s time is now spent processing documents. Paper consumption per capita in the United States tripled from 1940 to 1980 (from 200 to 600 pounds), and tripled again from 1980 to 1990 (to 1,800 pounds). In the 1980s, third-class mail (used to send publications) grew thirteen times faster than population growth. The typical business manager is said to read 1 million words per week. As of 1990, more than 30,000 telemarketing companies employed 18 million Americans, and generated $400 billion in annual sales.
Today, the vultures still feed, occasioning a billion-dollar market for antacids like Tagamet and Pepcid AC. For all of our abundance, ours is also an age of unprecedented stress, strain, headaches, and digestive problems—so much so, in fact, that tension has become one of our most vibrant industries. Three out of four Americans complain of chronic stress. Two out of every three visits to the family doctor are thought to be stress-related, and the three top-selling prescription drugs are for ulcers, depression, and hypertension.
Stress is also partly to blame, psychologists say, for the startling 300 percent increase in depression over the course of this century.
Millions of recently “downsized” Americans, rendered obsolete and jobless by technology, would not contest Seawick’s assessment. Neither would U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, who has made worker-retraining a personal crusade, warning that in today’s economy everyone can expect to change jobs an average of seven or eight times in their lifetime. Job stability, Reich says, is a thing of the past.
There is also a social cost to upgrade mania that cannot be measured in dollars. The blistering pace of life today, driven by technology and the business imperative to improve efficiency, is something to behold. We often feel life going by much, much faster than we wish, as we are carried forward from meeting to meeting, call to call, errand to errand. We have less time to ourselves, and are expected to improve our performance and output year after year after year. If life were a cartoon, as it sometimes seems to be, we would be the breathless Wile E. Coyote, forever chasing the Road Runner but never concluding the chase (<beep beep>).
(In this way, technology brings with it yet another internal contradiction: As it speeds up our world in the name of efficiency and productivity, it also constricts rational thinking.)
For the sake of this did everything else become indifferent to me... This is our postmodern refrain. Professional specialization and consumer nichification encroach upon our common culture. Rather than a healthy swirl of communication among citizens of different backgrounds and perspectives, we are left with a hyper-efficient communications infrastructure that not only highlights social distinctions; it fortifies them.
Specialization makes sleepwalkers of us all; the global village predicted by the seers of the 1960’s is being replaced by electronic cottages populated by isolated dreamers. We do not know our neighbors. If we are financial experts, we are speechless in the presence of research chemists; if we are scholars, we cannot make out the grimaces of merchants. We are a nation of lonely molecules.