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Coping with "Data Smog"


Updated November 23, 2003

Data smog is a term coined by David Shenk to refer to the information overload that many of us have experienced recently. The internet allows us to have access to entire libraries of information. The sheer volume of information which many of us are exposed to every day may actually impair our performance and add stress to our lives.

About.com exists partly because of data smog. The human guides at About.com sift through this data and present you with only the most relevant sites and information. This is in sharp contrast to most search engines, which will present you with hundreds of sites, many of which are irrelevant to your search.

Larry Rosen and Michelle Weil see data smog as a subset of what they call "TechnoStress", and they have written a book by that title.  Rosen has written widely on these issues.

Rosen quotes studies which show that employees of Fortune 1000 companies send and receive an average of 178 messages every day by telephone, fax, email, pager, and voice mail. 84% reported that their work is interrupted by messages at least three times per hour. Shenk, in his book Data Smog, states that the average American encountered 560 daily advertising messages in 1971. By 1997 that number had increased to over 3,000 per day.

Are there things we can do to avoid Internet data smog as we surf? Here are some ideas taken from Shenk, Rosen, and others.

  • Turn off the television for at least an hour or two every evening.
  • Spend some time each week without your pager or cell phone.
  • Resist advertising - never buy a product based on unsolicited email (spam).
  • Go on periodic "data fasts." A weekend in the country away from the telephone can rejuvenate a smogged-in brain.
  • Write clearly and succinctly. Verbose writing is wasteful and difficult to read.
  • Skim newsletters and magazines and rip out a copy of an article or two that you really want to read and digest.
  • Filter your email. Many email programs allow you to set "filters" which send unwanted email directly to the trash. It is worth taking the time to do this.
  • Allow others to filter the data for you. About.com's Guides are human information filters. Use the sites here to point you to just the information you want, while eliminating unwanted information.
  • Do not forward chain letters, urban legends, urgent messages about email viruses, or claims that Bill Gates will send everyone thousands of dollars. These things clog up everybody's inbox with worthless stuff.
  • Organize your Web bookmarks or favorites. Keeping these in meaningful folders will go a long way toward helping you really find that site you are looking for.
  • Consider your starting point. If you are looking for information on a broad topic a site like About.com (or even Yahoo) is better choice than a search engine. For a specific topic or individual a search engine may work better. Mental Health Search  lists scores of mental health search engines. Use MEDLINE   or PsychInfo (fee-based) to search the academic literature.   

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