Information overload is nothing new

The ever-expanding array of digital 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.

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.

Tom Standage writing in 1843 magazine