Harvard Business Review

Information Overload's 2,300-Year-Old History


Posted on Harvard Business Review: March 14, 2011 10:45 AM

We're all worried about the costs of information overload and we typically associate these problems with new digital technologies. But actually information overload has very deep roots: signs of information overload were present already in the accumulation of manuscript texts in pre-modern cultures and were further accelerated by the introduction of printing (in the 15th century in the case of Europe).

In the Western tradition, complaints about the abundance of books surface in antiquity (in Ecclesiastes 12:12 or Seneca in the 1st century CE). In 1255 the Dominican Vincent of Beauvais articulated eloquently the key ingredients of the feeling of overload which are still with us today: "the multitude of books, the shortness of time and the slipperiness of memory." Vincent's solution was to write a massive book (of some 4.5 million words) in which he gathered the "flowers" or best bits of all the books he was able to read, to spare others the costs (in time, effort and access to books) of doing so themselves.

In the 15th century, printing rapidly multiplied the number of books available and lowered their cost. The experience of overload, which had been limited to a privileged elite, became more widespread as more of the educated could buy more books than they could read or remember. They coped by taking notes to record the best passages from their reading and by relying on aids of various kinds—including people they hired to take notes for them, or printed reference works or, starting in the late 17th century, periodicals which circulated excerpts and book reviews.

Overload is not something that just happened to Europeans in the Renaissance as if they stumbled across ancient texts long forgotten in medieval libraries, or a new continent in America, or a new technology like printing. Overload was born from a drive to accumulate and save which became particularly visible in the Renaissance as individuals and institutions collected copies of ancient texts, exotic natural specimens and artifacts, forming the kernel of libraries and museums that have sometimes endured to the present.

Even well before the Renaissance, for every complaint about overload there were also enthusiasts for accumulation: at the Library of Alexandria (3rd century BCE), or in 1st-century Rome, with Pliny the Elder and his Natural history. Renaissance humanists were especially eager to save their writings and findings given their keen awareness of the tragic loss of ancient learning despite their best efforts to retrieve; Conrad Gesner (1516-65), for example, hailed printing and the growth of libraries as a guard against similar losses in the future.

But saving on a large scale required managing what was saved and providing tools for retrieval, hence the multiplication of finding tools, like alphabetical indexes of various kinds, detailed tables of contents, library and sales catalogs, and bibliographies. Many of these tools had been first developed in the 13th century by scholastics, but printing helped to diffuse them in more different contexts and to a broader range of readers and they have been with us ever since. For example, Diderot and d'Alembert presented their 17-volume alphabetically arranged Encyclopédie in the mid-18th century as the grounds from which civilization could be rebuilt if necessary after a catastrophe, but in fact we have not yet suffered from a massive loss of learning of the kind they envisioned. Of course much has been lost in the process of transmission, some by accident, but also, more systematically, the voices of those marginalized on account of race, class, gender or geography. Nonetheless continued accumulation has been the dominant information regime since the middle ages.

The overload we experience today—millions of Google search results in a fraction of a second—has its costs, but it is also a privilege, the result of the efforts of generations of accumulation before us and of massively increased access to the consumption and production of information in the digital age. Yes, overload creates problems, but it has also inspired important solutions—methods of selecting, summarizing, sorting and storing first devised centuries ago and that still work today, as well as new ones no doubt forthcoming.

Ann Blair is Henry Charles Lea Professor of History at Harvard. She specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of early modern Europe, and writes and teaches on the history of the book, the history of education and of scholarship, and the interactions between science and religion. She is the author of Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale UP 2010).

Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.


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