It’s important to remember that information overload is not unique to our time, lest we fall into doomsaying. At the same time, we need to proceed carefully in the transition to electronic media, lest we lose crucial methods of working that rely on and foster thoughtful decision making. Ann Blair, in support of her book Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, offers some critical perspective on one of the oft discussed problems of the information age.
Feeling overwhelmed by too much information? What else is new? The amount of digital data available on the Web every day reaches records of mind-boggling proportions–now more than a zettabyte (1021 bytes) and presumably accumulating at an ever-increasing rate, estimated at 30-percent growth per year from 1999 to 2002.
But such figures–often presented as evidence of unprecedented and stress-inducing overload–don’t mean much. After all, it takes only one or two pages of Google hits to overwhelm the average reader. Does it really matter whether there are hundreds or thousands more pages after those?
More important, information overload was experienced long before the appearance of today’s digital gadgets. Complaints about “too many books” echo across the centuries, from when books were papyrus rolls, parchment manuscripts, or hand printed. The complaint is also common in other cultural traditions, like the Chinese, built on textual accumulation around a canon of classics.