Overflowing inboxes, endlessly topped up by incoming emails. Constant alerts, notifications and text messages on your smartphone and computer. Infinitely scrolling streams of social-media posts. Access to all the music ever recorded, whenever you want it. And a deluge of high-quality television, with new series released every day on Netflix, Amazon Prime and elsewhere. The bounty of the internet is a marvellous thing, but the ever-expanding array of material can leave you feeling overwhelmed, constantly interrupted, unable to concentrate or worried that you are missing out or falling behind. No wonder some people are quitting social media, observing “digital sabbaths” when they unplug from the internet for a day, or buying old-fashioned mobile phones in an effort to avoid being swamped.
This phenomenon may seem quintessentially modern, but it dates back centuries, as Ann Blair of Harvard University observes in “Too Much to Know”, a history of information overload. Half a millennium ago, the printing press was to blame. “Is there anywhere on Earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” moaned Erasmus in 1525. New titles were appearing in such abundance, thousands every year. How could anyone figure out which ones were worth reading? Overwhelmed scholars across Europe worried that good ideas were being lost amid the deluge. Francisco Sanchez, a Spanish philosopher, complained in 1581 that 10m years was not long enough to read all the books in existence. The German polymath Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz grumbled in 1680 of “that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing”.
The solution was to develop a new set of mechanisms to classify and retrieve information. One example was the introduction, in the late 17th century, of scholarly journals that included book reviews, helpfully filtering and summarising (and in some cases excerpting) notable titles. The editor of one French journal noted in 1688 that reviews could act as a remedy for the “flood and overflow of books”. Another response was to expand the traditional canon of trusted authorities on particular topics, an idea dating back to antiquity, into more detailed bibliographies, or lists of recommended titles. And the centuries-old practice of prefacing longer works with a “list of headings” was refined and developed in two directions to help readers find passages of interest within individual books. Printed books, unlike manuscripts copied by hand, had fixed pagination. This allowed for detailed tables of contents, with page numbers, and indexes ranking subject headings alphabetically.
The development and adoption of these new tools took some time, and was not without controversy. As early as 1691, book reviewers were being accused of not having read the works under consideration. And writers fretted that jumping directly to particular passages meant that readers would fail to appreciate texts fully. Jonathan Swift complained in 1704 of people “who pretend to understand a book, by scouting through the index”, a trick he condemned as “index learning”. Some 18th-century authors even refused to allow their books to be indexed, to force people to read them all the way through. Fewer people worry about information overload from books these days. We accept that nobody can read everything. What were once clever new navigational tools now seem simple and obvious.
All of which reveals the true nature of the problem today: that we have yet to develop powerful enough techniques to help us navigate the deluge of digital data. We have made a good start with search engines, and with personalised filtering of the kind used by Spotify and Netflix to suggest music and videos that might appeal to us, based on our previous consumption. But there is clearly room for further improvement.
In the coming years, it may be that conversational, artificially intelligent assistants will become part of the answer, deciding whether or not to alert us to messages, helping us retrieve information and recommending items of interest. But figuring out book reviews, indexes and the rest took several centuries, so we shouldn’t expect an immediate solution. In the meantime we must endure information overload: the feeling that arises in the space of time between a sudden increase in the flow of information and the development of the tools to enable us to cope with it.