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Alive Online: Are You Drowning in a Sea of Data?, by Deb Shinder

It's a wonderful time to be alive, especially for an information junkie. Fifty-seven channels on the cable TV, the world wide web literally at our fingertips, e-mail messages that fly halfway around the globe in minutes -- who could ask for more? No fact is too obscure, no bit of trivia is too trivial. It's out there: everything we ever wanted to know about anything, and more.

But do you sometimes feel as if the availability of all this "good stuff" is having some very bad effects on your life? Do you find yourself unable to remember most of the information you absorb? Do you ever think that you know a little about a lot of things, but never seem to have time to get any in-depth information about anything? Are the facts moving too fast? Do you feel as if you're drowning in a sea of data?

Welcome to the (almost) twenty-first century.

They call it the information age, but maybe they should rename it the age of information overload. News events are broadcast instantaneously. We're all "in touch" all the time, carrying our cell phones and notebook computers with us everywhere we go. Can't leave home without the pager, lest we fall victim to that most horrible of fates: missing an important call. We are imminently accessible.

The future promises only more of the same. In technology circles, the prediction is that within a few years, everyone will have a personal, permanently assigned telephone number with a mobile phone that is integrated with a tiny computer and permanently connected to the Internet. Can the science-fiction scenario of communication chips implanted in our bodies be far behind?

Does the idea fascinate or scare you? I'll confess that my own answer is: both. Personal computing has advanced at an amazing pace over the last decade. It has brought us conveniences that could not have even been imagined by those of just a couple of generations ago, and which we would be hard pressed to live without. I would hate to have to give up the ability to exchange messages simply and inexpensively with my daughter, who is on the other side of the Atlantic in Italy. I have dear friends whom I'd never have known if not for the net; I even met my husband online back in the days before the Internet became a household word.

But I think we need to take a long look at where "progress" is taking us. Like nuclear fission, computer technology has the potential for great good, but it also has the potential for unthinkable misuse. Maybe we should all go back and reread George Orwell's "1984." Big Brother will soon have the means to control us all -- if we let it happen.

Or maybe not. Will the much-heralded turn of the century bring our computer systems to their knees? Will the power grids all fail and leave us without electricity and hence suddenly cut us off from our supply of constantly incoming information from the Internet, television, radio and other electronic media?

Well, I don't put much stock in the doomsayers' messages. I don't think we're about to be plunged back into the primitive pre-microwave world of our grandparents. But I do expect some problems to surface as computer hardware and software encounters the year 2000. We might experience a few days or even weeks without telephone service, without the net. And I wonder if that might just slow us down a little and give us a few minutes to get our heads above water.

Perhaps for the first time in a long time, we'll have some time. Time to think, to weigh the advantages of our new fast-paced lifestyle against the disadvantages. And figure out a way to retain some of the former without succumbing to the latter.

Deb Shinder, M.C.S.E., is currently a writer, editor, and website designer who teaches at Eastfield College in Mesquite, Texas. She lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area with her husband, Tom, and her teenage son, Kris. Their family business provides network consulting services to small businesses and municipalities. Prior to a mid-life career change, she was a police officer and police academy instructor, and has served as an elected official on the local city council.

E-mail Deb at:

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