Cover image for The end of patience : cautionary notes on the information revolution
The end of patience : cautionary notes on the information revolution
Shenk, David, 1966-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Bloomington : Indiana University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xii, 161 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
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HM851 .S54 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



David Shenk looks at the new face of our world with a curiosity and connection-making responsiveness that make him exhilarating to read. These are bits, takes, provisional sweeps at issues still coming into focus, but taken together they give us a startling glimpse of where we are. Shenk is so close to the present that most readers will mistake it for the future." --SVEN BIRKERTS, author, THE GUTENBERG ELEGIES

If the world of constant, instantaenous communication makes you a little nervous from time to time, David Shenk can explain why. This book is a very useful antidote to the endless praise lavished on the new electronic mediums. Read it slowly!" --BILL McKIBBEN, author, THE AGE OF MISSING INFORMATION

In this provocative collection of essays, David Shenk expands his enlightened skepticism to include thoughts on the dangers of online journalism, the ethical implications of digital photography, and the misguided hopes for computers in the classroom. Shock-jocks, computerized toys, Microsoft-bashing, and genetic testing are all subject to his incisive and discerning criticism.

Is Shenk just another neo-Luddite determined to bash all things digital? Hardly. This self-described technology enthusiast--and avid fan of the Internet--is simply interested in clear-eyed analysis of how machines we use actually affect our lives. As one of the founders of the Technorealism movement, he insists that new technologies must be appraised for their ability to achieve traditional human ends, rather than embraced merely for novelty's sake. The End of Patience includes vignettes from Shenk's conversations with some of the most provocative technology thinkers of our time, including Mitch Kapor, Steven Johnson, Esther Dyson, Douglas Rushkoff and Steve Silberman.

Author Notes

David Shenk a former fellow at the Freedom Forum Media Studies Center at Columbia University, he has written for Harper's Wired, Salon, The New Republic, The Washington Post, and The New Yorker, and is an occasional commentator for NPR's "All Things Considered". He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Shenk, author of the celebrated Data Smog, articulates further uneasiness with the information age in this collection of provocative punditry originally written for National Public Radio and publications ranging the information superhighway from Wired to Feed. There is, to be sure, much in the new hyper-faster-go-go-go dial-up culture to wear down one's patience. Shenk is fed up with Microsoft, the recent consolidation of corporation and academy, carbon-copy Howard Sterns and the paparazzi in all of us. But, even as he asserts the benefits of patience and the ability to pay sustained attention, Shenk is no Luddite ready to shack up in the mountains with his Smith-Corona far from his modem. He actually likes the digital ageÄso long as it is kept in perspective: "As the Web becomes integrated into the fabric of our livesÄmostly to our great benefitÄwe should employ hyperlinking as a useful tool, but be careful not to let it govern the way we think." Though, as a collection of previously published pieces, the book lacks the coherence of Data Smog, Shenk's sentences are witty, often savagely funny. These essays, many of which are shorter than three pages, are entertaining, even if, in their brevity, they do not demand the patience that Shenk argues is such a virtue. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One [Technology Review, September/October 1998] Stealing Calm An Ode to Radio Chances are, unless you've ever been alone in a radio booth, you have never experienced complete silence. I've had the privilege a number of times in the last few years and have come to savor it. Whenever I'm scheduled to record a commentary or defend my point of view on a talk show, I try to show up a few minutes early just to bathe in the silence of the studio. Radio booths are generally cramped and are rarely much to look at--ratty carpet, corrugated walls (designed to nullify all sound waves coming from whatever angle), soft creakless chairs. But the aural stillness lends a cathedral-like quality. There is an unnatural calm which slows down time. You can hear your own breath.     Of course, no one listens to radio in that kind of cocoon. We turn it on in the car, the backyard, the kitchen. But the silence of a radio booth says something important about the nature of the medium. As the delivery mechanism for a precious, fragile stream of audio, there is an uncompromising, almost militaristic component to radio's mission--that of vigilant protector. Seal the perimeter . Radio tightly focuses on a certain sound source to the rigid exclusion of all others. In a radio engineer's control room, there's a sanctity surrounding audio that you just don't see anywhere else in the media world. That's because with most other communications technologies, particularly anything with moving visuals, the task is not to slow down time, but to feed it as it ravenously marches forward.     I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference between radio and multimedia, wondering how it is that such a technically confined medium seems to me so intellectually superior. How does radio, with its limited bandwidth and narrow one-lane avenue of sensory impact, triumph over the audiovisual feast of television and even the World Wide Web when it comes to conveying memorable information, provocative ideas, and deeply human feeling? Marshall McLuhan wrote that radio "is really a subliminal echo chamber of magical power to touch remote and forgotten chords." I know I couldn't possibly count all the times, in ten years of daily listening to a variety of programming on National Public Radio, that I have wept, had deep spiritual epiphanies, come up with provocative story ideas, or heard an idea or perspective that fundamentally changed the way I thought about music or politics or language or science. But I do know that I owe a good bit of my life and career to what I've heard on shows like All Things Considered, Fresh Air , and A Prairie Home Companion , and I have spoken to many others who feel the same way. With no disrespect meant toward the many serious and talented practitioners of commercial and public television, TV is regrettably not a medium that regularly nourishes the spirit or challenges the mind.     A comparison with TV is particularly instructive in light of the impending televisionization of the Web. The other day I was asked to appear on CNN fn for a brief discussion about the cultural implications of the failure of Panamsat's now-infamous Galaxy4 satellite. Always happy to plug my book, I ironed my shirt and found my way to CNN's New York studios, near Penn Station in midtown. The differences between TV and radio were much on my mind as I arrived at the twentieth floor and began to notice that everything about the studio, from the makeup to the polished veneer set to the antiseptic dialogue on the TelePrompTers, said, "Skim the surface." I wasn't there to truly discuss information proliferation; I was there to look the part of having a discussion about information proliferation, to mimic the type. of discussions that might occur if the TV cameras weren't on. The audio would provide an appropriate backdrop for the image of, the anchor and me speaking, looking into each other's eyes, exchanging penetrating remarks.     I did my seven minutes. It was, like the rest of the spots I saw that morning while I waited, unmemorable. I shook hands with the anchor, thanked him. Then, as I was headings, away a funny thing happened. One of the production assistants caught up to me and said, "Hey, interesting stuff, can I ask you a question?" We proceeded to talk for another seven minutes or so about computers, the Internet, Bill Gates, and so on. It was about the same length as my conversation on the air, and infinitely more interesting. It was an actual conversation, with a life of its own that couldn't have been charted in advance.     I don't fault the anchor or the producer for the drabness of the CNN fn conversation. I think the flaws are embedded in the video medium itself. There's an interesting paradox at work here: moving images capture attention but subvert thought, a condition that is perhaps most vividly illustrated in the 1991 Wim Wenders film Until the End of the World . Setting: It is 1999, and a scientist has just invented a camera that can record and replay not just images, but also the neurological recipe behind each image. It can enable the blind to see what sighted people see, or for anyone to replay their own dreams. Several characters in the film become hopelessly addicted to, and strung out on, an endlessly intoxicating video montage. The story is an elegy for our post-industrial society: a collection of fragmented, alienated individuals who seem to continually shift their attention between flickering images--GameBoy, flashing billboards, news and stock tickers, and so on.     Wenders calls this "the disease of images," the problem where "you have too many images around so that finally you don't see anything anymore." This in-your-face property of television becomes its defining. characteristic for both producers and consumers. The inherently captivating and distracting properties of moving images allow force --TV and its practitioners to constantly acknowledge and flaunt the primacy of images over ideas. It would seem as fundamental a natural law as paper-covers-rock or scissors-cuts-paper: video trumps thought--complex thought anyway. Narratives work brilliantly on TV, of course and the medium thrives on conveying primal feelings like lust, betrayal, and triumph. There's something about the power of the moving image, though, that not only doesn't require much intellectual effort to consume, but actually discourages such exertion. Sit back and let me come to you . The frozen look on any TV viewer's eyes confirms this. So does the feeling we all have when we're a bit under the weather and just want to escape; we don't turn on the radio in those instances, or pick up a book. We watch TV. It's the great escape because it does, all the work for us.     This observation is reinforced by the most ambitious TV programming. In an interview not long ago, Neil Postman was asked his opinion of the Ascent of Man TV series, which was built around, the ideas of philosopher Jacob Bronowski. As usual, Postman honed in on the essential point to be made. "Here's an interesting point about the series," he said. "If you read the book, which actually was the television script printed, you realized that Bronowski actually has a theory of social change. And almost anyone who read the book could be asked a question about whether or not they think they agree with Bronowski's theory of social change. If you would ask this question of people who only saw Ascent of Man on television, they would say, `What theory?' The theory disappeared on television even though Bronowski actually uses the words that would appear in the book. Why does the theory disappear? Because the program, being good television, is filled with exotic, interesting, exciting images." Postman, of course, is author of Amusing Ourselves to Death , which worries that we're entertaining and distracting ourselves into cultural oblivion.     Fortunately, there is no analogous "disease of sounds." Radio producers face an entirely different set of problems. Television need only be seen to be watched. For radio, though, to be heard is not necessarily to be listened to. Though the juxtaposition of certain sounds can be comforting, inspiring, saddening, maddening, and powerful in a hundred other ways, those are all emotions of consideration. Sound moving forward in time is not inherently mesmerizing or captivating. It doesn't grab. On the contrary: the listener has to reach out with his or her attention and grab it , pull it in, and keep pulling with a considerable amount of focus. Television producers and webmasters have learned to speed up images as a way of seducing people to refrain from changing channels. That doesn't work in radio. String together ninety split-second fragments of nonlinear audio in the same way that MTV does with video, and you'd see many unhappy faces.     Images captivate us effortlessly, and are difficult to filter out. Screening out sounds, though, is something that humans are well constructed to do. Beginning with frequency-filter membranes in the inner ear (cochlea), we constantly discriminate between competing sounds so that we can make sense of our sound environment. This filtering, or "masking," enables us to perceive certain sounds as drowning out other sounds. Without it, the audio world would make very little sense to us.     Perhaps because it is so difficult to separate one sound from another and our auditory neurons are expressly designed to respond to this challenge, or perhaps because of other aspects of how sound is processed in our brain, we also psychologically discriminate among sounds. It is very easy, we all know from experience, to lose focus on what someone is saying to you in a room, even when there is very little audio competition. And it's downright common to have the radio on and stop noticing its contents altogether. As soon as we stop pulling audio in, it fades into the background.     Being able to so easily ignore radio turns out to be the luckiest thing of all for the medium, because it also means that in order to really listen to it, we must become truly engaged. Radio won't "work" in the neural background. It won't settle for an intellectual glazing over. It requires more of a commitment, a certain level of consideration, concentration, rumination. And there's a direct payoff, for the cerebral effort: studies by UCLA's Patricia Greenfield and colleagues show that radio inspires more imagination than television.     A healthy imagination and other aspects of creative thinking are the surest signs that we're pulling the information into our minds and interacting with it, that we're converting the information into knowledge. Kurt Vonnegut expressed this point marvelously in a recent magazine interview: "I can remember when TV was going to teach my children Korean and trigonometry," he said. "Rural areas wouldn't even have to have very well educated teachers; all they'd have to do is turn on the box. Well, we can see what TV really did.... We are not born with imagination. It has to be developed by teachers, by parents. ... A book is an arrangement of 26 phonetic symbols, 10 numbers, and about 8 punctuation marks, and people can cast their eyes over these and envision the eruption of Mount Vesuvius or the Battle of Waterloo. But it's no longer necessary for teachers and parents to build these circuits. Now, there are professionally produced shows with great actors, very convincing sets, sound, music. And now there's the information superhighway."     Vonnegut's sarcastic rant suggests that electronic visual technologies have changed the rules somewhat. Historically, we have associated sight with understanding . "Of all the senses, trust only the sense of sight," Aristotle wrote in his Metaphysics . Our present language is loaded with words and phrases which make analogies between the two--"insight," "illuminate," "enlighten," "clarity," "observation," "brilliant," and so on. In an age where more and more images are in motion, though, sight can neither be trusted nor counted on to propel us into thought and action. We're going to have to recalibrate our language and our thinking for a digitized age.     Fortunately, we have abundant text and audio resources at our disposal. We have the freedom to retreat to serious radio programming, to pull into the interior of our mind, to engage . The sanctity of audio allows for an intellectual intimacy that can be as nourishing as we allow it to be. None of these technological parameters ensure that a great percentage of radio programming will live up to the medium's potential--there's as much titillating mindlessness available on the radio dial as there is via the television remote or the web browser. But it does set the bar high enough that an ambitious few will inevitably (and consistently) scale to great heights. I am chopping vegetables in my kitchen and listening to the first explanation of schizophrenia that has ever really made sense to me; now I am driving in my car listening to a very interesting conversation about beach erosion; now I am in the shower, really learning something about myths in Ireland. It's not just the quality of the information that's resonating with me; it's also the conduit. At its best, radio is at once formal and intimate, thoughtful and spiritual, visually confining and cerebrally expansive.     At CNN fn , I noticed that as I spoke informally with the production assistant, we mostly did not look at each other. We'd glance over frequently to make eye contact, to reinforce some point or some tonal cue. But most of the conversation itself was happening irrespective of the visuals--in spite of the visuals. We were intentionally avoiding a situation where our eyes would constantly be fed. On TV a moment before, it had been just the opposite. All conversation was made with lasting eye contact, perhaps the best clue of all that it wasn't a conversation but a visual simulacrum--a video painting--of a conversation.     About an hour after I left the CNN building, I was in a radio studio on 56th Street near Sixth Avenue, participating in a wonderful public radio show called The Connection , hosted by Christopher Lydon. For about an hour, a handful of people shared observations and ideas, spoke with their eyes metaphorically closed, making a psychic connection. Real thoughts were formed, articulated, considered. As I listened to thoughtful guests and callers, I wondered: is any technology more "interactive"? It wasn't a perfect hour. I stumbled a bit, said some things I'd wished I'd said better. But it was still a terrific conversation. Callers thanked the host for another marvelous program, and you could hear that they meant it. People weren't just listening because they had time to kill. They were engaged. This wasn't entertainment; it was nourishment.     After the show, I stuck around the studio for a few precious minutes to let the ideas settle a bit, and to steal just one more moment of calm. Copyright © 1999 David Shenk. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Prologue: The Problem with Hypertext
Introduction and Acknowledgments
Part I The Disease of Images
Stealing Calm: An Ode to Radio
The Disease of Images
Just Sit Still: The Problem with The Java-Infused Web
Part II The End of Patience
The End of Patience: The Triumph of Button Smackers
The Age of Net Scoops
The Problem wIth Breathless Online Journalism
This Just In: The Problem with Pointcast
When Rushed Is Rash: The Dangers of Super-Quick Email
Part III From Signal to Noise
The Devolution has Been Televised: Crossfire Turns 15, An Appreciation
More is Less: How Faster News Can Hurt Journalism
A Wrinkle in Cyberspace: The Unreliability of Information on the Web
The World Wide Library: An Immodest Proposal
Disclose Disclose Disclose: What Newt Gingrich Doesn't Get about the Information Revolution
Part IV The Paparazzi Is Us
The Paparazzi Is Us: How the Democratization of Media Leads to the Tabloidization of Media
The Would Full of Stone Phillipses: The Tyranny of the Hit Count
Not Kissing but Telling Anyway: The Ethical Ramifications of Photoshop
Ph.D., Inc. : Is Extreme Profitability Healthy for Academia?
The World according to You: The Problem with Personalized News
Part V The World and Redmond, WA
Deep Pockets: The Problem with a Free Microsoft Browser
Hating Gates: The Culture of Microsoft Bashing
To Mac or Not to Mac: One Apple Devotee's Excruciating Purchase Dilemma
Part VI When Information Costs Too Little
The New Pests
The End of Anonymity?
Spam: Congress to the Rescue
Free Bridge for Sale. Just Click Here
The Problem with Abundance
Part VII Generation Next
School Bells and Whistles
"Use Technology to Raise Smarter, Happier Kids:" Behold the Toys of Tomorrow
Hall Pass to the 21st Century: The Problem with Putting Schools Online
Stupid Kid-Tricks: The Actual State of "Educational" Material Online
Biocapitalism: What Price the Genetic Revolution?
Be Afraid
Part VIII Technorealism
A Philosophy for the Rest of Us
An Overview
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
Letter from Shinjuku: Japan and the Future of the Information Revolution