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Data Smog and the Christian Life

We are at a strange and unique stage of human history. The combination of the Internet, electronic storage media, the rapid rate of technological progress and the fast-pace of our society, has given us unparalleled access to unparalleled amounts of information. Never in history have people had access to so much information. Consider just a few examples:

Google currently indexes billions upon billions of web pages and adds hundreds of thousands more every day (I was not able to find an exact count, but as of 2005 the page count was already well in excess of 8 billion). Almost every one of those pages contains at least some information. Amazon and other internet retailers sell hundreds of thousands of different books, videos and other sources of information. Newspapers, especially weekend editions, are obscenely large, often totaling hundreds of pages and weighing several pounds. In Spiritual Disciplines For The Christian Life, Don Whitney says that the amount of information contained in just one weekday edition of the New York Times contains more information than a man like Jonathan Edwards would have encountered in his entire life (though I can’t imagine how that is really measurable).

A 2003 study showed that print, film, magnetic, and optical storage media produced about 5 exabytes of new information in 2002. Ninety-two percent of the new information was stored on magnetic media, mostly in hard disks, meaning that much of it was readily available to others. (5 exabytes = 5 billion gigabytes, or the equivalent of 125,000,000 average-sized hard drives. This was a dramatic increase from just two years before when the total amount of new information was a “mere” 1.5 exabytes. “How big is five exabytes? If digitized with full formatting, the seventeen million books in the Library of Congress contain about 136 terabytes of information; five exabytes of information is equivalent in size to the information contained in 37,000 new libraries the size of the Library of Congress book collections.” And that is the total for just one year.

Neil Postman, in a talk entitled “Informing Ourselves To Death” once spoke about the information facing Americans: “In America, there are 260,000 billboards; 11,520 newspapers; 11,556 periodicals; 27,000 video outlets for renting tapes; 362 million tv sets; and over 400 million radios. There are 40,000 new book titles published every year (300,000 world-wide) and every day in America 41 million photographs are taken, and just for the record, over 60 billion pieces of advertising junk mail come into our mail boxes every year. Everything from telegraphy and photography in the 19th century to the silicon chip in the twentieth has amplified the din of information, until matters have reached such proportions today that for the average person, information no longer has any relation to the solution of problems.” That was years ago and since then the amount of information has grown almost exponentially.

All of this points to the fact that we are facing much more information than humans did in days past. In fact, we are facing information overload. We cannot possibly keep up with the amount of information that is coming our way. Yet in many ways it is becoming increasingly important to our lives that we do just that.

Francis Heylighen, in a 1999 article entitled “Change and Information Overload: negative effects” writes about the problem of information overload as a condition that is becoming increasingly destructive in the workforce. He shows that the acceleration of change in our society has caused a dramatic increase in information, and thus an increase in the amount of information the average person needs to know.

The acceleration of change is accompanied by an increase in the information needed to keep up with all these developments. This too leads to psychological, physical and social problems. A world-wide survey (Reuters, 1996) found that two thirds of managers suffer from increased tension and one third from ill-health because of information overload. The psychologist David Lewis, who analysed the findings of this survey, proposed the term “Information Fatigue Syndrome” to describe the resulting symptoms. Other effects of too much information include anxiety, poor decision-making, difficulties in memorizing and remembering, and reduced attention span (Reuters, 1996; Shenk, 1997). These effects merely add to the stress caused by the need to constantly adapt to a changing situation.

Part of the problem is caused by the fact that technological advances have made the retrieval, production and distribution of information so much easier than in earlier periods. This has reduced the natural selection processes which would otherwise have kept all but the most important information from being published. The result is an explosion in often irrelevant, unclear and inaccurate data fragments, making it ever more difficult to see the forest through the trees. This overabundance of low quality information, which Shenk (1997) has called “data smog”, is comparable in its emergence and effects to the pollution of rivers and seas caused by an excess of fertilizers, or to the health problems caused by a diet too rich in calories. The underlying mechanism may be called “overshooting”: because progress has inertia, the movement in a given direction tends to continue even after the need has been satisfied. Whereas information used to be scarce, and having more of it was considered a good thing, it seems that we now have reached the point of saturation, and need to limit our use of it.

 

His conclusion is that the biggest problem facing our society is not that we are making too little progress, but that we are making too much! I think I know just what he means.

Christians are by no means exempt from the impact of information overload. Consider, for example, a pastor who lived in America in the early nineteenth century. What information was he privy to on a daily basis? If he lived in a large town he may have had access to a newspaper and perhaps even a library. He may have owned a few books, but generally he had very little access to significant amounts of information. He usually rose and went to bed with the sun, he never watched CNN, never listened to the radio, and if he lived outside of the city, may have only rarely had anyone to talk to outside of his family members. But consider a pastor today. We can be sure he has access to hundreds of television channels, hundreds of radio stations, billions of web pages, millions of books, newspapers, magazines and so on. The phone rings constantly, the cell phone interrupts his meetings and the computer beeps that a new email has arrived.

In many ways the nineteenth century pastor had a difficult life compared to what we experience today, yet, in the words of Don Whitney, “On the other hand, he never had to answer a telephone once in his entire lifetime! Despite his inconveniences, his mind, like the psalmist’s, was not as distracted by instant world news, television and radio, portable and car telephones, personal stereos, rapid transportation, junk mail, and so on. Because of these things, it’s harder for us today to concentrate our thoughts, especially on God and Scripture, than it ever has been.”

How can a Christian find time to just sit and think, or sit and memorize or meditate upon Scripture? I know first-hand how difficult it is to remove myself from this information overload, even for a few days or a few hours. I consider it a hardship to be disconnected from email and the internet, and often my job depends on having near-instant access to these technologies. It is such a temptation to begin my day with checking my email and checking my favorite blogs and news sites rather than beginning quietly with God. I have a difficult time turning off the phone and the computer so I can sit and memorize God’s Word, even for just a few minutes at a time. I have succumbed to the information overload, and have loved being a part of it. I have seen the data smog envelop my life. But, as with many other Christians, I know it has affected my spiritual life. While the information we are privy to is in many ways a blessing, in other ways it is a temptation and a curse.

Some days I thank God for the vast amount of information at my disposal. Other days I just wish it would all go away. In my more rational moments I know that this is impossible - the information is going to increase, not decrease. Therefore I am responsible before God to live a spiritually disciplined life in spite of this information overload. I am responsible before Him to carve time out of this information influx so I can just be alone with Him; alone with no telephone, no email, no internet. It is critical to my spiritual well-being that I find ways of removing and properly managing these distractions that keep me from spending the time He and I need to build a thriving, growing relationship.