Interview with David Shenk

- Interviewed by Robert Jamison -

Computing Japan interviewed David Shenk, author of Data Smog, during his recent stay in Tokyo. David, a former fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center, has written for Wired, The New Republic, Harperšs, The New York Times and the Washington Post, and is a commentator for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered." He lives in Brooklyn, New York. His book was recently released in Japanese as High-Tech Kashokusho.

What brings you to Japan?

David Shenk: I came here on a fellowship sponsored by the Japan Society in New York, which is a non-profit foundation funded by various Japanese government and industry sources. Each year they bring four American journalists to Japan, and send four Japanese journalists to America. They take people who don't yet have any expertise on Japan. It works differently for the Japanese journalists, because these people have to speak English, but in my case, I told them I was interested in Japan and advertised my ignorance about the country. That was my ticket here. It was a great opportunity for me.

The program was two months long, and I spent most of that time meeting people. People like teachers who were trying computers in schools, software executives, journalists, a guy at Microsoft, you. Just talking to people about the issues that I raised in my book, and Japanese society, and what the Japanese versions of data smog are, if there are any.

Well, what kind of parallels did you find?

David Shenk: I was really amazed by how digitally mobile this society is, and clearly how much more it's about to become. I mean, the foundations have been laid and - Well, let's back up a second. Society has become so mobile in terms of telecommunications. Computers have gotten tiny enough that people walk around regularly with a half-pound computer that can do just about anything, and now computers can come equipped with cameras. It seems that in almost every way the Japanese are really becoming conditioned to the idea of "taking everything with you." For example, e-mail watches, which aren't that popular yet, but they're available. One of the first days I was here, someone pointed out that the Super-G Casio watch phenomenon could well be conditioning people to wearing something sizeable on their wrist, these are huge watches. It's not going to be much of a jump to turn that into an Internet watch. All the pieces are in place for this society to be the first society that really takes the Internet and everything we know about communications, on the road.

Several companies are now prototyping PCs called "wearable PCs," which is exactly that kind of technology.

David Shenk: The funny thing is that in the States you can't even imagine that. I mean, you can imagine the machinery, but you can't imagine its use. Of course every businessman, every lawyer, every executive has a cellular phone, but you just don't see people walking around using them all of the time for social reasons, as social tools. It just hasn't become an integral part of society the way it has in Japan. Being here in Japan makes me feel like I've been transported to the future. You add that together with automatic doors on all the buildings, talking appliances in all the homes, and giant TVs on every street corner - there are so many aspects of life here that seems about a decade ahead of the US.

Do you see any parallels to the movie Blade Runner?

David Shenk: That movie is clearly going to last. It's always hard to know what books, what celebrities, and what songs are going to last. But that movie, even though it's only 15 years old or so, just seems like we'll be referring to it for a long time. The feeling that came across in that movie is not unrelated to what I've tried to say, this idea that people are going to be so overcome by consumerism and technology. Things had gotten so prosperous and so high-tech, the government didn't matter much any more and everyone was just really out for themselves. And I do think that would be a pretty ugly world. Clearly, one of the great saving graces of Japanese society, even though people criticized it constantly last year, is the government, and the strong social institutions that keep it running so well. I'm sure many of the criticisms are right on the money, and it sounds like the country is due for a lot of change, but still - 27 million people and no crime? Something is going right.

What kind of a reception did your ideas receive here?

David Shenk: I see many people nodding their heads. It's similar to the US, but I'd say it's more pronounced. Most of the people don't think about these issues, and that's because society really conditions people not to think about technology as a possibly evil thing. We're conditioned to think of these machines as fun and helping us and, "when can I get the next one?" We just don't think about all the subtle things we're giving up.

People I talked to who seemed interested in thinking about these issues in a broader sense were very interested, and some people were resistant or just disinterested. Mainly because of various social reasons, many Japanese people really don't want to think about these issues. Japan is feeling so anxious about where they are with information technology, because they're behind on the Internet - even though I think that's a myth. They feel behind, but everybody feels behind. The US is ahead in certain ways, but if you look at the numbers, Japan is not really that far behind. It's a matter of months or a year at the most if you were to compare the numbers of people using the Web.

Before I arrived in Japan, I heard from many Japanese in the States that Japan was 5 years behind the US in the information revolution. But I found that in many respects that's not true. Because of the current economic situation, Japan feels behind, and they're looking for reasons to explain it and for ways to dig themselves out of it. Everyone universally is thinking that information technology is this great economic engine, and Japan feels that there are some fundamental social changes coming up in education and other aspects of society. There's this feeling of "got to get computers in schools and that's going to improve education, and as soon as we catch up to the States with this Internet thing, we'll be better off in every way." But I'm saying, "Maybe that's not true. You're giving up things, too. You always give up things when you use new tools. Time to think about that." I did meet some people who were very worried about the rush to wire Japan and the move towards a mentally mobile society.

Worried in what way?

David Shenk: Along the same lines that I'm worried about - that this mobility is really an extension of consumerism. It itemizes society, not in the same ways as the States, not into subcultures, but into egos, super egos, that one develops when one becomes a part of this useful society. For me, my big worry is that it's a huge distraction.

While I was here there was a big milestone that was quietly passed: TVs in the back of taxis. It was an experiment to do TV advertising in the back of taxis. I was actually in one, and then read about it in the newspaper a couple of nights later. To me, that is the equivalent of a poisoning of society. Every day, millions and millions of people are getting into the back of taxis, and have maybe 10 or 15 minutes to collect their thoughts before a meeting. With the TV set in the back seat, we're subverting that personal time, and to me, it's a weapon. It's not meant as a weapon, but it is. It's meant to capture your attention, so you've got some free time in this taxi, and we advertisers are having such a hard time reaching people because everyone is already so busy and distracted. Here's a great opportunity. To me, it should be a war. Advertisers, for their own reasons are waging this war, trying to capture our consciousness in every possible space that can be conceived. Consumers should be battling that. They should be saying, "Look, I see 5,000 advertisements a day. I want to have a few minutes to myself!".

This idea of resisting the onslaught of the marketing and advertising industries is well entrenched in the States, but in Japan, did you find that people are receptive to that?

David Shenk: I don't know, I don't think I really had enough conversations to make a judgement of that.

Your book has been translated into Japanese. How did that process go? Were you involved in that at all?

David Shenk: I wasn't. I think I got very lucky because people have been saying it's a good translation, and I met the translator and he's very bright. I think he took this job very seriously.

What is the title?

David Shenk: High-tech Kashokusho. They say it means high-tech bulimia. Some people looked at the title and said, "This is a brilliant title. It's perfect." There was talk to keep it as "Data Smog," but I guess the problem is that the word data is not a real specific term here, it's not used as a metaphor for information.

What got you thinking about writing a book on the information glut?

David Shenk: I started thinking about this book and researching it in the early '90s. I graduated from college in '88, so I was just out of college and freelancing. I had a Macintosh, a fax machine, a cable TV, and subscriptions to many magazines and newspapers. The Internet wasn't prevalent yet, but I was using e-mail. Then I was offered a wire service, which used new radio technology. Here I am with a wire service right in my home, and that was an Epiphany for me - how cheap information would become, and that we were going to be over-run with information.

I grew up reading books, and everything about my life is based on culture. All cultures are based on great books, great thinking, and big ideas. But one day I realized that I hadn't read a book in a couple of years since I had gotten all of these tools. I had essentially traded the slow information for the fast information. People, particularly journalists, can become addicted to fast information, with no sense of the long term.

What do you see as the potential consequences of all this information overload?

David Shenk: We are becoming so used to filtering out information that we're all becoming harder to reach. And the people who are trying to reach us are us, we are all the media. Everyone is so desperate to get attention. The best kind of micro example is when you get e-mail with something outrageous as the subject header, just to get you to open the e-mail. My personal favorite was an e-mail that said, "I found your ATM card." Of course I quickly opened it and read it very carefully. It was actually someone who had read an article of mine and wanted to communicate with me. The article he had seen was about e-mail, so he suspected I got a lot of e-mail and he tried to break through the clutter, which he did [laughs]. But there's a huge consequence to society, with people behaving like that. You know, in the US, we're living the consequence, which to me is like the shock-jock phenomenon. The people who are successful now in American media are those who have learned how to constantly shock people. "What outrageous thing is he going to do next? I'm going to listen and find out." That's a metaphor for how outrageous media has become.

I think that there's a moral responsibility now to be really careful about how much of another person's time you take up, e-mail or phone calls. When you know someone is very busy, instead of calling them 2 or 3 times a day, maybe just once every couple of days. And come to the point instead of writing a 2 page e-mail, write a nice paragraph that sums it up. It's better to take more of your time and less of the other person's time, even though it's harder to do. It's easier to say, "Oh, I'll forward this whole e-mail," but it's better to do the morally responsible thing and edit it down. It's only going to take a few minutes of your time.

You're talking about technology etiquette. As we add more and more technology, etiquette is the last thing to catch up. You may have seen "no mobile phone" signs on some of the buses and trains here. When mobile phones first started becoming popular here in Japan, people were using them everywhere, all the time. As soon as society, or the bus company, or whatever powers-that-be decided it wasn't acceptable behavior, they simply said, "Don't use your mobile phone on the train. It's rude." Afterwards, 98% of the people stopped doing it.

David Shenk: That won't happen in the States. Well, maybe, but probably not until they pass a law.

There is a big push now in Japan to get computers and the Internet into schools. Do you think that will improve education here?

David Shenk: The Japanese need to keep this in perspective, and the most upsetting thing I've seen is how people are assuming that having computers in schools is something absolutely necessary and is going to improve education. I know that there are many problems in schools here, but computers aren't the answer. It'll be necessary to have a couple of computers in the library to do research that you just couldn't do before, and useful for classes to communicate with cultures and whatnot, but the idea that putting people online is going to suddenly make them educated, that's not what this is about.

Let's remember that being online is only for information, the whole point of schools and whole point of life is converting information into knowledge. The easy thing is getting information. In 5 or 10 years, we're not going to be thinking about how to get online, how to get information. By then, we should be thinking about what kind of information we are getting. We should be making sure what we are getting is meaningful, not just entertaining. Meaningful and entertaining are often on opposing sides.

Someone once said it's not important how many books you read, but rather which books you read.

David Shenk: Exactly, which ones you remember, which ones you can talk about. I find myself becoming more and more interested in trying to make each moment count, remembering what I read, and remembering my experiences, rather than just getting the stimulus.

Do you foresee any trends?

David Shenk: In Japan I'm going to be very curious to see how this mobile society grows, and whether they will make the telecommunications industry very happy by making the third generation a big success. Watching videos, sending videos, and going on the Internet the way they talk on the phones now, all mobile, all the time.

I think a version of it will happen. It isn't that much of a leap to imagine getting and sending e-mail and browsing Web pages on-the-go. I'm also going to be curious to see these new goggle TV sets. Right now they are just laying the ground work, but when they get cheaper and lighter, at some point they will get that critical mass and everyone will say, "Hey, I'll get my mobile TV set." You'll see people on the trains, getting their little beep at their stations and hooking up their goggles and away they go.

In the States, there's a craze to outlaw junk e-mail. Many states are adopting these laws. I don't know what the specifics are, but once it is defined, unsolicited and commercial email will have to abide. The best idea I've heard is to put "advertisement" in the subject panel so it can be filtered out. What I like about this is that society recognizes that the Internet is great and gives us more freedom and power, but we still need these social institutions, in the same way we need them in the real world - to help us preserve public space and things that are good for society - that you just can't do on an individual level.

There was all sorts of crazy talk in the mid '90s in the States about how society is evolving and there will be no need for governments or schools, and I think that's total bullshit, total garbage. What's happening in the States now is people are getting levelheaded about this. I see it as chapter two of the digital revolution, where people are being more reasonable about the great changes that are coming.

A while ago, I got together with a dozen writers and we coined the term technorealism, and put a manifesto online. The gist of it is a balanced approach to technology, instead of assuming that you must be either a Luddite or a technophile. It's like asking, "Do you love these machines or do you hate them?" and people would only be able to say one or the other. So to me, the philosophical challenge of technology is all about finding balance.

David Shenk can be reached at

Back to the table of contents