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“When information changes from a stream to a river to Niagara Falls, how will we ever slow down to achieve knowledge?” – Gregg Easterbrook, Sonic Boom, Random House, 2009.

The term “Data Smog” was coined in a book of the same name by author David Shenk in 1997. The term was more recently discussed in a book titled Sonic Boom by Gregg Easterbrook.
Data smog suggests that the ever increasing, on-demand news and data accessible to us as a society actually decreases our ability to acquire knowledge or plan for the future as we are too weighed down by the overload of information.

Why the overload? Aside from the obvious advent of the internet, there are the changing goals of our news sources. The goal in the past, when stories came from the local paper and the evening news, was to provide basic facts surrounding the events of the day. Networks made their money, but the news was largely untouched by marketing and promotion. Today, there is so much competition for our eyes and ears and so many different delivery methods, that the goals are very different. The goals are to make readers and viewers as unsettled as possible in order to drive both the need for more information and the need for the goods and services sold by their advertisers.

Today, all news is “breaking”. Every tremor, house fire or police chase is covered by multiple helicopters and posted all over 24-hour news channels and websites across the globe. The line between news and opinion has been blurred by Nancy Grace, Bill O’Reilly, Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Glenn Beck. This doesn’t even begin to address Tiger Woods , the Octomom, TMZ and other celebrity pseudo-issues that pass as news. We attempt to grasp it all, feeling that more information makes us more intelligent and informed.

The truth is no one person can handle the constant stream of sensationalized information on a minute-by-minute basis. The end result, as Easterbrook puts it, is a “universal low-grade nervous tension from which there may be no realistic escape.” It is ultimately in the business interests of the media outlets to make sure the public continues to suffer from this affliction.
This tension impacts our feelings about our investments, our government and many of the other aspects of our lives. The bombardment of constant information, much of which conflicts, makes it extremely difficult for anyone to form any opinion that goes beyond cynicism.

Much of this isn’t news to anyone. The information age went warp-speed well over a decade ago. There is nothing anyone can do about it and it will only get worse. What can be done, however, is achieving a deeper understanding of how this data smog impacts us on an individual level and how to handle it in our own lives.

First, choose your trusted information sources carefully and understand the difference between opinion and actual facts and data. Be especially careful to trust information which goes to any extreme for the sake of being extreme. Take time to understand the motivation or incentives behind those delivering the message.

Chip Workman, CFP®