Information Pollution Alert! Living with Data Smog

We are a nation awash in data smog. This is more than just information overload — it’s not just that there’s too much information out there for one person to adequately encompass, it’s that there’s too much data out there to even make out the information clearly, let alone to evaluate and act on that information.

What’s worse is that unlike normal smog, which is the unintentional byproduct of our need to burn things to provide energy, much of the data smog is intentional. We aren’t supposed to be able to see clearly! Between pernicious advertising, ideological pronouncements, and allegedly entertaining “infotainment products”, we’re being bombarded with data explicitly intended to dull out senses and distract us from clear thinking about important matters.

This is not a conspiracy theory — it’s straight out of Marketing 101! Rational, considering actors make lousy consumers; deliberation and cautious evaluation muck up the democratic process; critical analysis makes the powerful look foolish. Marketing wants none of that! No, far better to engage the impulses, to feed the primal emotions of fear and longing, to get in and out in the blink of an eye.

Here’s a couple of examples:

Dumb Parents (Don’t) Rule!

Watch a kids TV show recently? Watch a few? You might have noticed a trend — dumb parents. Uncool, hapless, clumsy, dorky, way-out-there dumb parents. Remember the parents of yore? The Bradies, the Cleavers, even the Wah-Wah-Wahing parents of the Charlie Brown universe? They were pretty with it — voices of sanity and authority in an adult world kids struggled to grasp. Not any more — today’s TV parents are hopeless.

Why? Because that’s what media producers’ customers want. Not the kids — viewers aren’t customers, they’re product. You don’t buy Jimmy Neutron. The advertisers whose spots fill the commercial breaks during Jimmy Neutron buy you — the cartoon is just a way to get enough of you watching to make it worth the advertisers’ buck. Well, not you — your kids. You’re just a wallet with legs — what they really want is to show your kids really cool stuff that they’ll get you to buy. And of course, you’re going to say “No”. That’s where the show’s content comes in — your kids have just spent 4 hours learning that parents are uncool idiots who say “No” to all the coolest stuff.

Pay no attention to the scientist behind the curtain…

Why would an oil company like Exxon-Mobil fund global warming research? Anyone with half a brain knows that they’re only going to publish research that’s favorable to them. Why would a tobacco company fund research on second-hand smoke? Again, it only takes a 40-watt brain to realize that their results are going to be biased in their favor. Yet both petroleum companies and tobacco companies spend millions on research that nobody can possibly take seriously.

They don’t do it for love of science, obviously. Nor do they do it to convince you, or me, or anyone that smoking’s good for you and burning coal saves penguin lives. They hire scientists and churn out biased research to muddy the waters, pure and simple. Knowing that oil companies pay scientists to put out bogus climate change research calls into question the objectivity of all scientists — who’s to say that the scientists saying that burning coal is bad for the environment aren’t just as biased as the petroleum-backed scientists saying it’s not? Certainly not you — you’re no scientist! It’s perfectly logical, then, to conclude that “nobody knows for sure” and that it’s all just a political dance.

Dealing with data smog

Amid all this fear, uncertainty, and doubt-mongering, one thing’s absolutely sure: it’s going to get worse. And I don’t mean “it’s going to get worse before it gets better”; it may never get better. As more and more ways for data to reach us become prevalent (there will be more and more apps for that!), there will be more and more ways to obscure what’s important amid what’s urgent, like buying things.

So we have to learn to deal with it, to sort through the come-ons and the panic-inducing attacks and find the information that actually makes our lives better. Here’s a crash course in smog survival:

  • Get educated: The most important step in dealing with data smog is to build up your mental toolkit, and that means getting educated. There’s a reason that Jefferson saw education as the cornerstone of a functioning democracy.
  • Share your ideas with others: Community can be a great protection from malevolent data. Tell people what you’re thinking to avoid the echo effect of standing alone in a tunnel, where only you hear your ideas coming back to you. Suddenly “I’m going to buy a sports car” doesn’t seem like such a great way of dealing with your pattern baldness, does it?
  • Winnow news sources to one or two trusted daily sources (local and national paper, for example) and three or four less frequent analytical sources (magazines, mostly). In their quest to differentiate themselves, news outlets pour on all sorts of gloss and glitter (everything except actual analysis, it seems), but they’re really reporting the same stuff as everyone else — probably from the same wire. Get what you need and move on.
  • Learn marketing techniques: Learn what makes your news sources and other information sources attractive to their customers (advertisers) and take that into account. Read up on how marketers do their job, so you can identify when marketing techniques are being used on you. Try Robert Cialdini’s classic Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion for a good primer.
  • Follow the money: Find out who paid for research and what the payers’ goals are. Most academic books and articles list this in the acknowledgements (for books) or the footnotes (for articles); for mainstream books, you may have to check the references.
  • Follow the interests: Ask who a story seems to help, and how.
  • Consume critically: Ask yourself if the opposite conclusion is possible, and how your source deals with that possibility. Biased sources usually ignore or belittle opposing viewpoints, instead of engaging them. But it’s rarely likely that the other side is stupid or in some sort of conspiracy.
  • Does it matter? Maybe this should be the first thing you ask, about anything. It’s easy to get caught up in things that ultimately don’t matter. That’s OK if you’re just having fun, but not much to build a life on.

This isn’t anything like a comprehensive response to data smog — at best it’s Data Smog 101. But it’s a start — and we need a start, because the alternative is getting less and less informed about the real world around us. Maybe you have some ideas? Let’s hear ‘em in the comments.

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