Smothered by Data Smog

Larry D. Rosen, Ph.D.

The National Psychologist

July/August 1997

The afternoon mail arrives carrying with it three newsletters, a journal and a national psychology newspaper. Are you excited by the prospect of diving into this collection of paper and reading all about what's happening in the mental health profession?

Or, like most of us, do you toss the mail on top of an already-teetering stack of material "to be read" ... someday? According to a new book by David Shenk, we are all being smothered by a "Data Smog" (HarperEdge, 1997). Consider the following statistics from Shenk's book:

In 1971 the average American was targeted by 560 daily advertising messages. Today that number has risen to over 3,000 messages per day!

The typical business manager reads approximately 1,000,000 words per week.

A single weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than an average person in the 17th century would have encountered in a lifetime.

It is no wonder that you never quite find time to attack that "to be read" stack. With a continual glut of information being fired at you, the pile probably resembles the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

So, what do you do? A colleague recounted that when the mass of paper gets too high he dumps in into an empty box which he stacks in the corner of his office. Unfortunately, this leaves little room for his desk.

Consider two other recent studies:

A Reuters Business Information study of 1,313 junior, middle and senior business managers in the U.S., England, Hong Kong, Singapore and Australia identified a new techno-malady that they labeled "Information Fatigue Syndrome." Seventy-three percent of those sampled felt that they needed enormous amounts of information to be successful in their job and that technology made this information more accessible, yet at the same time, Reuters found that two in three reported that their work life and personal life both suffered as a result of the stresses brought by information overload. More than half of the managers in the Reuters study were sure that their work environment would become even more stressful over the next two years due to the continued onslaught of information.

A study by the Institute for the Future found that employees of Fortune 1,000 companies send and receive 178 messages each day via the telephone, fax, e-mail voice mail and pager. Eighty-four percent of the 1,000 subjects said that their work is interrupted by messages at least three times an hour. Is it any surprise that another study of 1,000 consumers found that the most hated distraction is voice mail.

Your "to be read" stack at the office, combined with the countless magazines, catalogs, and other mail to be read at home creates your personal level of "data smog." Add voice mail and e-mail messages to the daily avalanche of reading and the smog thickens. Do the new web sites you haven't yet visited feel like even one more layer of smog?

As David Shenk writes in his book: "Almost anybody can add information. The difficult question is how to reduce it." Shenk offers several cures. First, he says, be your own information filter by turning off the television, leaving your pager and cell phone behind for part of each week, avoiding "news nuggets, resisting advertising and even going on "data fasts." Second, Shenk encourages readers to avoid being an information litterbug by avoiding verbose writings. Third, he implores you to simplify your life and finally, to help improve the government's role in our information overload.

Shenk's suggestions may help scatter the data smog, but I believe that they are really only building you a gas mask that will filter your air. What you really need, I believe, is to develop the attitude that you can filter your own information, take what you want or need and leave the rest alone.

With this attitude you can flip through a marketing newsletter, rip out the articles that might help your practice, throw away the rest and then have the time to read, absorb and apply their wisdom. It won't feel so overwhelming to learn from information if you resist thinking that you have to learn it all and know it all. Take what you can absorb and leave the rest alone. Don't worry that you are missing out -- if an idea is truly great, you will hear it again.


Copyright, 1997, The National Psychologist. Reprinted with permission. The National Psychologist is a privately-owned bimonthly newspaper which may be purchased for $30 a year. Write or call: TNP, 6100 Channingway Blvd., Suite 303, Columbus, OH 43232; telephone: 614.861.1999 or fax with Visa or MC to 614.861.1996.