August 1997


Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 13:44:40 -0400
From: Christopher Harper
Subject: Author's Reply to Review of Data Smog and Reviewer Response

David Shenk:

The author did not like my review of his book Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut (New York: HarperEdge, 1997). That's fine. I found many faults in the book, particularly the lack of solid research that needs to be done and documented when an author posits a truism.

Certainly, there are some phenomena that are difficult to prove with hard data. That's why these phenomena remain theories, not proven facts. The author presents his argument with a variety of headings such as "The Thirteenth Law of Data Smog (Gingrich's Law) Cyberspace is Republican." Scientists, including social scientists, shy away from such dramatic statements as "laws" until the analysis can be proved.

[]Shenk responded to Harper's July 1997 review of Data Smog.

The author maintains that my review misstates his views on government intervention. One chapter, entitled, "Don't Forsake Government; Help Improve It," argues that

"...we must call on that awkward but thoroughly necessary beast, government...Federal initiatives are badly needed, mostly because technology politicy is too important to be surrendered to chance or to the wealthiest corporations."

Here are the recommendations the author makes in his book:

  1. The government should help citizens defend themselves against data spam, including legislation to create "private zones" that could not be disturbed by mass marketers.

  2. Cities and states should guarantee refuse from data smog. The author specifically lauds Vermont, which has prohbitied advertising billboards on all highways. A similar approach should be used on the Internet, he argues.

  3. The Federal Trade Commission should root out consumer frand and improve efforts at consumer education. Specially, a new Consumer Education Act should be enacted to bee up the Federal Trade Commission.

  4. A new Government Information Act would ensure that citizens have online access to documents and assist the public's understanding of the workings of the government.

  5. An overhaul of government policies on technology, including "consensus conferences" on these policies and widepsread public involvement in developing such policies.

Some analysts may support this agenda. As a former Washington correspondent for Newsweek, this reviewer believes that government involvement in many projects rarely works. Direct democracy elects members of the Congress, state and local leaders. Unfortunately, direct democracy has no significant role in overseeing bureaucrats who initiate policy. The author's position reads like a bureacrat's mantra: only government can protect the poor, misinformed and unwashed American public. The argument underestimates the intelligence of that public.

The author maintains that the reviewer failed to read his section on Republicans in cyberspace. The reviewer will simply ignore the charge and provide a direct quote from the book: "Cyberspace is not politically neutral. It favors the political ideas of libertarian, free-market Republicans." After my review was written, a reviewer from The New York Times took issue with the same argument.

Despite the author's repeated statements, this reviewer has never written an analysis without reading a book. In addition, I often explore the sources cited in a book. Unfortunately, the key data sources are poorly referenced in this book.

This reviewers does not doubt that the author thinks his long hours provided fair characterizations. Quantity does not necessarily mean quality. Finally, this reviewer's analysis centered on the book without personal attacks on the author, only his ideas and techniques. This reviewer found fault with many of the author's ideas and techniques. Unfortunately, some of the author's statements attack the reviewer's integrity and questions whether I actually read his book. If authors put ideas out for public debate, they should expect discussion and debate rather than attacking the integrity of the individual who may disagree with them. [TOC]

Christopher Harper

Christopher Harper ( is an Associate Professor in the Department of Journalism at New York University in New York City. He has been a producer for the ABC News program "20/20," a Rome and Cairo Bureau Chief for ABC News, and reporter for Newsweek and the Associated Press.

Copyright © 1997 by Christopher Harper. All Rights Reserved.


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Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut by David Shenk. New York: HarperEdge, 1997. 213 pages, indexed. ISBN 0-06-018701-8

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