August 1997


Date: Tue, 22 Jul 1997 02:10:56 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: reply to Data Smog review

Christopher Harper:

I can respect the strict demand of hard facts as part of one's skeptical review of any argument. Are you open to the possibility that some phenomena are more difficult to prove with hard data than others?

That's not what bugs me about your review, though. That's just an honest disagreement that you and I have. As the data begins to pile up about information overload (as it already has since I finished the book), I'm confident that my arguments will stick.

[]Harper responds to this letter

What bugs me about your review are statements like these:

"Once a diehard highway warrior on the Internet and the World Wide Web, Shenk has finally had enough, and he won't take it anymore."

"He sees electronic democracy as nearly a violation of the U.S. Constitution."

"He wants the federal government to govern the Internet and the World Wide Web....Let's license all those computers. Make certain that there is public broadcasting on those computers, perhaps a family hour."

Anyone who has read the book with any care whatsoever will understand these characterizations as either sloppy or malicious. Taking them one by one:

In no way do I indicate that I have given up on the Internet. With all of my concerns, I am still a huge fan, as I make clear throughout the book and by inviting electronic correspondence.

My concerns about electronic democracy are considerably more complex than your summary, and not nearly as extreme. Mostly, I argue against the specter of direct democracy. Are you arguing for it?

Not only is my call for limited government action regarding the Net considerably more subdued and specific than your cartoonish characterization. I also go out of my way to warn against too-much-government intrusion, while you imply that I do exactly the opposite.

Then, if I read you correctly, you go out of your way to mention your point of view that you don't think we should rush into wiring the schools. What you entirely omit is that this is also an argument in my book.

Two other statements of yours (in a review of less than 800 words) warrant attention:

"As for the author's notion that 'cyberspace is Republican,' he should take a look at the Pew Research Center's recent survey on the subject. It shows that the Internet is slightly more Republican than Democrat."

Mr. Harper: If anyone else on the planet reads my entire chapter 16 and comes away thinking that what I meant is that cyberspace is overwhelmingly populated by Republicans, ask that person to give me a call. My point is so utterly different from the one that you imply, I have to wonder if you read the chapter yourself.

You also write: "The author preaches that niches are bad."

Please, please, please tell me that you didn't write the last half of your review by skimming my table of contents (I have a chapter entitled "De-nichify"). It's true that I do explore some of the problems of nichification in my book. I also explicitly discuss the many benefits of niches, concluding with the sentence: "What marketers call 'nichification' is, in fact, an important part of our improving quality of life."

In your review, you insinuate that I am a bad journalist. I spend hours working to make my sentences into fair characterizations of the people and events and ideas I am describing. I work very hard to avoid unfair overstatements. Can you re-read your review and make the same claim? Of the dozens of reviews of my book that I have come across, yours wasn't the absolute sloppiest. But I beg you to be more careful and thoughtful in future book reviews. It matters, maybe more than you realize. [TOC]

David Shenk

David Shenk ( is a regular columnist for Hotwired and an occasional commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered." He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Copyright © 1997 by David Shenk. 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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