E-serenity, now!

Reeling from e-mail, cable TV, and cellphones, info-environmentalists try to reclaim mental green space.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The newest polluters are not chemical manufacturers leaking toxins into the air. Neither are they logging conglomerates clearing ancient forests nor avaricious developers turning wetlands into strip malls. The newest polluters are in your pocket, atop your desk, or clogging your telephone lines with streams of digital effluent.

The information age, it seems, is data-contaminated. And it's not just the volume of information that's worrisome; it's the lack of context in which it's delivered.

At least that is the argument of a new and growing group of people some call "information environmentalists." Their aim: to reclaim quiet mental space from the chirping persistence of cellphones, personal digital assistants, instant messaging, niche cable channels, and a virtual landscape littered with news, entertainment, and sales pitches.

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"We are ready to see this new kind of information environmentalism, ready to ask about the pollution of our experience and our attention," says David Levy, professor at the University of Washington's Information School and a former researcher at Xerox Corp.'s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the think tank that has produced such inventions as the personal computer and the laser printer, among other innovations.

"It feels to me that as a result of the high speed at which we're operating ... we're kind of numbing ourselves," says Dr. Levy. "I don't think too many of us run around in these activities with our hearts wide open to the world. We're just trying to get by."

Nascent movement

To call information environmentalism a movement may be premature, but only slightly. This week in Seattle (ironically home to Microsoft, Real Networks, and Starbucks' wi-fi-equipped coffee emporia) an eclectic group of people from academia, religion, medicine, and the arts will explore this heady topic at a conference titled, "Information, Silence, and Sanctuary."

This is hardly an assembly of Luddite naysayers. Lending support to the conference, along with the University of Washington, is the National Science Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation.

"The idea that people are more and more surrounded by information - I guess one could almost call it noise - was important to us," says Elspeth Revere of the MacArthur Foundation. "The idea that you could sort through all this information, get what you want, and not let the 'muchness' of it all have a negative impact on your life."

Information overload is a problem, not only because people get so much information, but because they get it out of context.

Not that long ago, says John Seely Brown, a conference panelist and former director of Xerox PARC, most of what people learned came from concrete media: the morning paper, the pages of a book, face-to-face conversation. Today, with fewer trusted contexts, information doesn't mean what it once did.

"Our current forms of media are creating mushy minds," says Mr. Brown. "We have to question what the meaning of progress is. Not all forms of technology lead to progress."

This preoccupation with getting more information faster - what Brown derisively calls efficiency - leads to a kind of tunnel vision focused on sending and receiving information for its own sake.

"The trouble with tunnel vision is that it leads to tunnel design," he frets. "We are designing all sorts of information technologies that make things more efficient, but not necessarily more effective."

Brown says such efficiency-fixated products as cellphones, Web search engines, and even electronic versions of daily newspapers foment anxiety in users, because once people take information out of context it becomes much more difficult to know what it actually means.

Eliminating 'sterile' sources

There are as many strategies for easing this anxiety as there are consumers of information. Roger Lippman, an energy conservation consultant, employs triage: "I take the most useless, 'sterile' information sources and delete them from the start." He's eliminated his television and ignores instant messaging because, he says, "it isn't information."

"I don't sign up for (e-mail) listservs, even though they're great information," he adds. "Most of the information I get is what my friends send me - and I do the same for them."

Mr. Lippman's partner, a political activist, is on numerous lists and receives a mountain of e-mail each day. "She feels guilty if she doesn't keep up with it all," he says, "and of course she can't keep up with it all, so she always feels guilty."

When Mike Dash, a management consultant to the high-tech industry, realized he was being deluged by informational pollutants, he spent two years developing a strategy for limiting his exposure to toxic data. His conclusion: "A tremendous amount of the information out there comes down to two statements: One if these is, 'You're deficient.' And the other is, 'If you buy this, it will fix that.'

"I turn away from these as fast as I can," Mr. Dash says. "So I don't have a television and I don't subscribe to anything except one magazine. Ninty-nine percent of what I see I dismiss."

Some of the pioneers of information environmentalism were actually steeped in the information age. After graduating from Stanford University with a PhD in computer science and artificial intelligence, Levy detoured to London, where he began a study of calligraphy and book binding. He turned out to be on a pilgrimage of sorts, even if unwittingly at the time.

While in London he supported his study by working as a computer consultant. He also explored the 19th century's Arts and Crafts movement, which arose in opposition to the Industrial Revolution and fostered an explosion of weaving, papermaking, and other anti-industrial crafts.

At a workshop on digital typography at Stanford in 1983, Levy realized computers would be the writing tool of the future.

"And then it hit me and I said, 'Oh, yes - this is all part of a continuous stream of history.' What it meant," he realized, "was that I could be involved in this ongoing evolution trying to bring the spirit - the historical, the cultural, even the spiritual values - from my calligraphic training into the world of high tech."

For the past 20 years Levy, a self-confessed e-mail addict, has sought balance between these disparate worlds. It has led him to meditation, aikido and, with his rabbi wife, a disciplined practice of Judaism. "Because we observe Shabbat - the Sabbath - it means we don't work during that time, and I'm not on the computer," he says. "And as soon as the Sabbath is over, I run upstairs and go see what's happened in the last 24 or 25 hours."

Scheduled sanctuary

His e-mail cravings notwithstanding, Levy is convinced the sentiment of a Sabbath can be part of the antidote for information pollution. "You don't have to be a practicing Jew, Christian, or Muslim to adopt some kind of Sabbath practice - whether it's one day a week or one hour a day." Imagine the Sabbath, he says, as a sanctuary in time.

With the title of his conference, Levy is trying to hint at part of what he thinks the answer is, and it leads him back to the environmental analogy. "The environmental movement said unrestricted urbanization and industrialization will kill the planet. We need old growth forests. We need marshlands. We need certain kinds of balancing spaces, right?

"Well," he shrugs, "as human beings, we need certain kinds of protective spaces as well."

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