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E-serenity, now!

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

By Dean PatonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 10, 2004


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.

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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.

"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