Information Overload Not New

While complaints that there's too much information for intellectuals to sort through, much less read, are constant, they're not new. Harvard historian Ann Blair argues in her new book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age that this stress goes back at least to Seneca's time.

While complaints that there’s too much information for intellectuals to sort through, much less read, are constant, they’re not new. Harvard historian Ann Blair argues in her new book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age that this stress goes back at least to Seneca’s time.

Inside Higher Ed‘s Serena Golden interviewed Blair (“Too Much To Know“). ¬†Some excerpts:

Q: Expressions of anxiety about the impact of textual abundance “can be traced in any number of times and places” throughout history. What have been some of the most predominant concerns — and do you see reiterations of them today, in academe or beyond?

A: The earliest concerns about overabundance were moral in character: in the complaints of Ecclesiastes or Seneca too many books meant distraction from the attentive study of the few good texts that could offer genuine edification. Humanist pedagogues worried about their students not reading texts through, but reading selectively, often thanks to an alphabetical index. Today, similarly, we worry about our ability to focus becoming lost amid so many forms of communication vying for our attention. In the 16th century scholars were also worried about not finding what they were looking for among so many books. Many books seemed useless or deleterious, and finding the useful ones was time-consuming and not always successful. Today we have powerful and helpfully redundant search tools and yet we too often do not find what we’d like to and we also need to remember that we might be missing something, especially since not the Web does not contain all the information that might be valuable to us.

Q: These days, we tend to attribute the excess of textual information to the Internet and all things digital, but you emphasize that “the perception of and complaints about overload are not unique to our period.” Do you see the proliferation of information — and the consequences thereof — in our own era as unique, or simply as part of a pattern dating back centuries or longer?

A: The overload we experience today is unique in a number of ways. The sheer scale of accumulation of digital materials is of course unprecedented, and the accumulation is highly visible: everyone with the ability to use the Internet can experience getting hundreds of thousands of hits on a Google search and having to make choices from more options than can be investigated carefully. In earlier periods complaints about overload stemmed from the ranks of the educated and those with access to books and manuscripts. The potential to gather more information than we can comfortably manage has probably been around since writing first allowed for the accumulation of more material than could be remembered, but overload has not been a universal experience. In many times and places scholars have experienced a dearth of books rather than overload. In ancient and medieval contexts, the learned circles in which authors articulated fears about overload were often quite small. Starting in the 15th century printing helped to spread literacy and access to books in early modern Europe, so that by the 18th century a broader readership appreciated the problem of overload and the solutions of the day: newspapers and periodicals that printed reviews and excerpts from books, and encyclopedic genres that summarized all those books you wouldn’t have time to read yourself.


Q: In the book’s epilogue, you mention your concern “about our ability to revisit old sources left in obscurity for a generation or more,” since “[a]s we turn to storing most of our data on electronic media, we risk eliminating from the chain of transmission anything that is not regularly updated onto new media.” Do you intend for your book to raise questions or concerns about digital preservation? What perspective do you hope it might impart to readers?

A: Digital preservation raises many serious and unresolved problems. For example, concerning published materials, who will store and maintain them and access to them? At whose expense? I am delighted with recent discussions for creating a National Digital Library in the U.S. which could coordinate with the national digital libraries already in formation in other countries, notably in Europe. But this will no doubt be a long ongoing process rather than a rapid achievement. As a historian I am also concerned about the preservation of materials that are not published, which may not always be in active use in the near future and yet which historians will want to use in a later future. This includes archives of all kinds — generated by government at all levels, but also by corporations and organizations, and individuals. Many of the sources I used in researching my book, including, for example, notebooks kept by scholars ca. 1600, have remained dormant in library collections for over 400 years, yet they are perfectly accessible as ink (and glue) on paper, so that language and handwriting present the only minor remaining obstacles. How can we retain access to digital materials stored on software and hardware that will soon be obsolete but which won’t seem worth the constant maintenance required to keep them current? These are some of the problems we have created for ourselves, and I am heartened that many excellent individuals and organizations are thinking hard about solutions for archiving the born-digital materials that we are generating, inevitably, in ever-greater abundance.

This last problem is only increasing, as most of us commit next to nothing on paper anymore. Granted, we’re probably committing more than ever to writing via email, texting, instant messaging, and various social media sites. But it’s not by any means certain that these writings will endure in the same way that old fashioned letters and diaries did.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    While AI is still a distant possibility, the ability of computers to read for content, on a much more basic level, is on an up-tick. It will be interesting to see how search evolves in 20 or 30 years, and how that changes “knowledge in our head” vs “knowledge easily accessible.”