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The End of Patience:
Cautionary Notes on the Information Revolution

 openbook.gif (276 bytes)The Best of Online Shopping

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shenk.gif (6413 bytes)David Shenk
Indiana University Press
174 pages
September 1999


Feel you are getting Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder just from listening to the press touting ecommerce? This book is an antidote to Web excitement, a sedative for anyone suffering from an overload of Internet ballyhoo.

Contrarian humorist, pop ethicist, and grumpy debunker, Shenk will give you new perspectives on e-commerce and the Internet in general. For instance, he goes on CNNfn to talk Internet stocks and comes away seeing himself as just another image, which reminds him of the filmmaker Wim Wenders, who says that "You have too many images around so that finally you don’t see anything anymore." This disease of images on TV contrasts sharply with radio, where "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," Shenk argues. Radio requires work. "In order to really listen to it, we must become truly engaged." To him, Web sites are becoming TV, part of the infotainment zone.

He argues that we have run out of patience, because we are addicted to conveniences such as the fax machine, email, FedEx, beepers, and web shopping, and we have become painfully aware of every second that we have to wait. Yes, our expectations have kept pace with the best of the new technology, and we experience, well, serious impatience when one of these tools fails to deliver quickly, accurately, or ever.

Shenk calls this cultural shift "the triumph of the button smackers."

Shenk’s antipathy to the rush to universal digital "smartness" led him to review toys with embedded chips, such as the robotic Barney, Microsoft’s ActiMates product, which he compares with the Lego robots from Mindstorms. His complaint about both toys: "These fantastic new devices for children can distract us from what ought to be our ultimate goal, improving the quality of our kids’ lives, not just injecting more fun into them." So, yes, these are fun, and neat, and cool, he argues, but they really don’t do more than train young consumer of future electronic products.

Shenk’s not opposed to the Web, just balanced, he would say. Yes, he buys books from Amazon, but he also worries that if all of us do that, the local bookstore will go bankrupt. Email lets us get connected 24/7, but then we end up working too many hours of the week. "The scarce resource is time," he said recently in an interview with CIO Magazine ( "As individuals, we need to be constantly aware that companies are always trying to get our attention and make money from it." In his book, Shenk runs a balance sheet on the attention economy of online ads. (Bottom line: They assess a fee in attention).

But the man who wrote Data Smog still sends emails complaining about email excess, pumps up big-concept pieces arguing that we need substantive meaning more than grand ideas, narrates National Public Radio commentaries that give us just a glimpse of the story.

Odd that this book comes from a university press—I long for the well-researched version. These snippets of Shenk’s ideas suggest an original mind, alert to revealing details, sticky enough to retain great quotes, intellectual in a post-modern way. Here we see the surface—the conclusions, with just a soupcon of the evidence. Kudos to the press for preserving these ephemera. And to David Shenk, this appeal: Please do the real work, and write the big book next!

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