July 1997


What's Ahead in the Digital World

Book reviews by Christopher Harper

Smoke and Mirrors

One of my New York University colleagues terms David Shenk's Data Smog "brilliant." Another describes the work as breaking "new ground." Yet another colleague spent a year with Shenk as a fellow at the Freedom Forum in New York and says he thinks this book is important. With endorsements like that, the book can't go wrong, right? Hmmm.

The central thesis of Data Smog is that there is too much information beating upon us from every corner of the information superhighway that we can't cope, and there must be a survival guide to protect humanity from the onslaught. "Information, once rare and cherished like caviar, is now plentiful and taken for granted like potatoes," he writes. 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's concerned that journalists may be bypassed in a digital world -- and the loss of their collective gatekeeping and analytical skills will mean less understanding. Finally, he sees the threat of the Internet as a libertarian, Republican tool that House Speaker Newt Gingrich and others may co-opt, if they haven't done it already. He even cites studies that show that information overload causes these effects:

  1. Increased cardiovascular stress.
  2. Weakened vision.
  3. Confusion.
  4. Frustration.
  5. Impaired judgment.
  6. Decreased benevolence
  7. Overconfidence.

Annotation: August 1997

[] Shenk responds to this review

Unfortunately, this book does not make one suffer from information overload because the citations for these studies are so sparse, and the evidence for Shenk's conclusion so anecdotal and without significant scientific and analytical basis that the smog could be better explained as the author's smoke and mirrors. For example, a key source in his argument that the computer companies know about information overload is "K," a digital powerbroker who says he must remain anonymous. How about a good journalist simply refusing to use the information unless the source goes on the record?

It is little wonder that Shenk cites the late Marshall McLuhan so frequently in the book. McLuhan rarely did any scientific research. He sent out verbal probes -- such as "the medium is the message," and the "global village", -- to see how researchers would respond. McLuhan's statements became intellectual bumper stickers -- a mantra that people use with little understanding of either the message or the method.

Shenk engages in intellectual gamesmanship. He wants the federal government to govern the Internet and the World Wide Web. Please. The Federal Computer Commission? Let's license all those computers. Make certain that there is public broadcasting on those computers, perhaps a family hour. Only recently the government has decided I have to pay an extra $20 a year to wire the schools. That's a tax. I don't want the schools wired just yet. I'd rather have better teachers and better curricula first so that the students can read the computers and write on them or a piece of paper for that matter. The government also tried to create a user-friendly approach by opening a Social Security site on the Web. It shut down after the government found out how easily hackers and other bad folks could access the system. 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. But that would mean that the author would have to address some hard data rather than describe his feeling of being a scorned lover after his long affair with Apple computers.

Shenk suggests we turn off our television sets. Take a break from our computers. Read a book. I assume he means his book. As someone who worked in television for 15 years and long ago cut off my cable, I don't need the advice. The author preaches that niches are bad. My sense is that the author is trying to create a niche for himself alongside computer maven/aginner Clifford Stoll, who now has his own television show. If the author feels overburdened by this information onslaught, I would suggest the next time he writes a book that he refuse funding from America Online and Lexis-Nexis, which he accepted for this one. Methinks Mr. Shenk doth protest too much. But at least he has three out of four professors from New York University giving him the thumbs up. A lone dissenter am I.

The Economics of What Will Be?

By most accounts the two heavyweights of the information age at the Massachusetts of Technology respect one another and have appeared together on panels about computers and the future. But Nicholas Negroponte, the director of the MIT Media Lab, is far better known to the public than his counterpart, Michael Dertouzos, director of the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science, primarily because of Negroponte's best-seller Being Digital and his column in Wired Magazine. The fact that both men are Greek may add a bit to that competition. So here is Dertouzos' contribution to the growing analysis of the digital world that lies ahead, What Will Be.

Somewhat ironically, Dertouzos' analysis is primarily an economic assessment of what the digital age will be based on his theory of the international marketplace and how that will affect humankind. That theory, in part, is based on Dertouzos' youth in Greece, where he saw the grand bazaars open to the public, offering myriad items to anyone who stopped by to shop. Unfortunately, Dertouzos' brilliant computing prowess is not equaled by his understanding of economic tenets.

As an example of the law of supply and demand, Dertouzos compares the relatively low cost of a copy of the movie "Star Wars" with the millions of dollars received by Jay Leno and David Letterman. Something is lost in the translation here. "Star Wars" has generated far more revenue than Leno and Letter combined because the demand for the movie is far greater in terms of audience size. In fact, Leno and Letterman cost the consumer nothing; the advertisers and the broadcast entity pay the salary. Moreover, "Star Wars" has managed to created a multi-billion-dollar industry in the 1970s and the 1990s, hardly a claim either talk show host can make. Economic figures tend to be analyzed in the aggregate rather than the individual purchase. Therefore, the aggregate demand of "Star Wars" far exceeds Leno and Letterman. That's from Economics 102.

In true Socratic fashion, Dertouzos searches for definitions. Like the Greek philosopher, Dertouzos has trouble with his definitions. What is the economic value of information? Information has economic value if it leads to the satisfaction of human desires. A small portion is intermediate goods from supply and demand. By far the larger portion is intermediate goods that derive their value substantially from the value of the goods and services to which they lead.

As an example, he analyzes the value of a postal mailing list, and how a business selling encyclopedias places value on that information. These lists are exceedingly important to these companies, he argues, to identify families with children who may use the materials. Unfortunately, this example ignores the fact that most encyclopedia companies are about out of the business of selling books and have devised a new strategy for selling materials online, creating a entirely different marketing scheme that bundles the encyclopedia with computer resellers and manufacturers. While the postal mailing list is still used, it has declined significantly in the encyclopedia trade.

Another tenet of Dertouzos' international marketplace: Left to its own devices, the Information Marketplace will increase the gap between rich and poor countries and between rich and poor people.

One then could infer from that belief that the market should be regulated in some fashion. In that event, the market is skewed in one way or another by government intervention and is no longer a free market as is the marketplace in Greece upon which Dertouzos' theories are based. Moreover, it is rather ironic that Bill Gates of Microsoft, who wrote the introduction to this book, thoroughly disagrees with the author on this point, so much so that Gates has developed a strategy to pour huge resources into South Africa and India as a launching pad for sales throughout the developing world. Nii Quaynor, Mr. Internet of Ghana, sees the digital age as a means of possibly narrowing the gap between rich and poor by providing the developing world with access to information and markets. Adam Clayton Powell III of the Freedom Forum is also optimistic, as is McClean Greaves, the president of Virtual Melanin, an information and entertainment service aimed at young African-Americans and Hispanics.

In the future--in a linear or nonlinear medium -- I would hope that Dertouzos, a renowned computer analyst, would stay a bit closer to what he knows rather than venturing into realms he may know less well.

Highwaymen on Well-trodden Paths

As media critic for the New Yorker, Ken Auletta spends most of his time rubbing shoulders with the movers and shakers in the boardrooms of America's largest corporations. The Highwaymen is basically an anthology of his columns during the past two years, which profile media moguls Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone and Barry Diller and corporate gamesmanship at cable companies, movie studios and multimedia organizations.

If one argues that television, newspapers, movies and home-shopping networks are part of the information superhighway, then this book may be about the future. But only one article, a profile of Slate editor Michael Kinsley has much to do with the Internet and the World Wide Web. In short, the articles talk about corporate battles about traditional media or how these companies MAY adapt to new media. On the cover are the following "warriors" of the information superhighway:

  1. Barry Diller, the former head of Paramount Studios and Fox Broadcasting, who is no longer a major player at any level.
  2. John Malone, the head of cable giant TCI, who is having serious financial difficulties and has pulled out of any significant role in new media.
  3. Michael Ovitz, the former head of a talent agency and former second-in-command at Disney, who is no longer a significant player in the new information age.
  4. Michael Eisner, the head of Disney, profiled in a battle with Jeffrey Katzenbach, the second-in-command at Disney before Ovitz. Katzenbach is now a part of Dream Works, the production company with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.
  5. Jerry Levin, the head of Time-Warner-Turner, who is only a bit player in the book.
  6. Sumner Redstone, the owner of Viacom, who is only a part of a profile of Frank Biondi, the man he finally ousted as chief executive officer.
  7. Ted Turner, the founder of CNN and vice-chairman of Time-Warner-Turner, who provides a couple of quotes in a profile of his company.
  8. Rupert Murdoch, the media mogul who owns more than 100 newspapers, Fox Broadcasting and Twentieth Century Fox.. But how much does Murdoch really have to do with new media?
  9. Bill Gates, the cofounder of Microsoft, who plays a bit part in a profile of Michael Kinsley.

The book is disappointing because it really focuses on old rather than new media. While the corporate boardrooms are important places to hang out, the new media have been happening outside of the traditional realm of the media. Only recently have the old boys jumped on the Internet bandwagon, particularly after Gates jumped into new media with MSNBC, Microsoft Network, Slate and Sidewalk. Even in the profile of Kinsley's development of the on-line magazine, Slate, Auletta clearly does not understand the lay of the World Wide Web land. He seems far more comfortable in analyzing the power politics of the boardroom than the anarchy of the Internet.

Whistlestops on the Infobahn

I feel a bit like the little boy in the commercial when his big brother places the breakfast cereal on the table to see if the kid likes it. The younger brother glares at the cereal, but he picks up a spoon, takes a taste and smiles. "He likes it! He likes it!" the older brother says in amazement.

So what do I like that's out there to read about information and computers? The new paperback version of White House to Your House by my colleague and friend, Edwin Diamond, and Robert Silverman of Interactive Media.

The book is an updated version of the authors' work issued two years ago. The authors trace the campaigns of 1992 and 1994 and how the candidates stepped outside of the traditional media -- a characterization Diamond and Silverman dislike -- to use the morning talk shows and Larry King Live, the favorite hangout of Ross Perot.

This new edition includes an update on the 1996 campaign -- the first online election -- when even Bob Dole used a Web site. What the authors discover is that digital journalism is not quite ready for prime time. But Diamond and Silverman see candidates in the year 2000 -- assuming the millennium bug doesn't devour the election -- as a time when politicians will turn more and more to the Internet and the World Wide Web to use their capacity to reach individual voters through chat rooms, news on demand and detail to allow the voters to dig down into their representatives' records.

Candidates, elected officials, and the political culture will also have some choices to make: "Will they choose to compete on this new field with ideas, intelligently and openly?" the authors ask. "Or will they stay stuck in the past, condemned to repeat old habits?"

I think I am more comfortable at this point by reading the well-posed questions of Diamond and Silverman than listening to ill-conceived predictions in the other three books.

Christopher Harper ( is special issue editor for this issue of CMC Magazine. He 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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