Information Overload Is Not Unique To Digital Age

It is a constant complaint: We're choking on information. The flood of data on the Web has reached mind boggling proportions, and it shows no signs of stopping. But wait, says Harvard professor Ann Blair — this is not a new condition. It's been part of the human experience for centuries.

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TONY COX, host:

It is a near-constant anxiety. The flood of digital information has become a deluge. Do a Google search and get 13 pages of results. Multiply that by Twitter, by blogs, by Facebook, then multiply that by your mobile devices, and it can seem all very, well, overwhelming.

This overload is not, however, a new human experience. Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard, points out that early responses to information overload have not been positive. Take the writers of Ecclesiastes or Seneca or Pliny, and these guys didn't even have laptops.

We'll talk to Ann Blair in a moment. But first, what is your solution to the digital deluge? Call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Ann Blair is professor of history at Harvard and the author of a new book, "Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age." She joins us from a studio on Harvard's campus. Ann, nice to have you.

Professor ANN BLAIR (History, Harvard University): Thanks for having me.

COX: So this is not a new condition. Did it begin with the printed word - or maybe before?

Prof. BLAIR: It probably began before then, judging from Ecclesiastes, as you mentioned, of making books, there is no end. Or Seneca's line, too many books is distraction. On the other hand, at the same time, there were also enthusiastic responses toward accumulating knowledge going equally far back. So we've got the Library of Alexandria, which tried to collect all Greek manuscripts that they could get their hands on. Or we have someone like Pliny, whom you mentioned, who was very proud to have collected 20,000 facts from over 2,000 authors in his 38-book "Natural History," from the first century of the Common Era.

So on the one hand, there's nothing new under the sun. And on the other hand, there are some moments of peculiar crisis, and one of them, certainly, is today. But another one is what I specialize in studying is the print explosion...

COX: Now, before...

Prof. BLAIR: ...in early modern Europe.

COX: Before we get into the specifics of that, I want to ask you a couple of things. The first one is this. As a people, as humans, do we always react the same way, or have we always reacted the same way over time whenever this explosion of new information surfaces in our environment?

Prof. BLAIR: Well, no, of course. I think, first of all, there are personality differences. As I suggested, some people want to shut it out and really just return to a few core elements rather than dealing with a deluge, which is a perfectly reasonable response, that we all have probably sometimes too. And other people are enthusiasts and want to just gather it all up insofar as possible and make bigger and bigger books with more and more fine devices and ways of searching those collections.

And there are, of course, wide cultural variations in how - what the purpose of the collection was for. So some of the largest collections, actually, the manuscript "Yongle Dadian" in 15th century China, is really only topped recently as something like a hundred million words. It's an anthology of all known works. That wasn't - they were printed often, but they were actually made in manuscript copy for the use of the emperor and his court. So it was not designed for circulation.

COX: Now this will lead...

Prof. BLAIR: On the other hand...

COX: Go ahead, finish your answer. Finish it.

Prof. BLAIR: On the other hand, in Europe, the situation that I described of reference books being published are always published in a commercial environment by printers who hope to make money by selling lots of copies to individual readers mostly.

COX: Well, my question was going to be - and I think this will lead into what you were initially going to talk about with respect to this not being the first time that we have been here - have we ever had, in our existence, anything that is even remotely comparable to the explosion of information that the Internet has brought us?

Prof. BLAIR: Well, certainly, on the scale of information accumulated, no way, of course.

COX: Okay.

Prof. BLAIR: I gather that we have almost accumulated one zettabyte of digital information, and I did not know what that was...

COX: I've got to say - I take it that's a lot.

Prof. BLAIR: That's a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLAIR: Ten to the 21, 10 with 21 zeroes after it.

COX: Okay.

Prof. BLAIR: And of course Wikipedia is the one that explains that to me. But in terms of having too much for an individual to master, we've been there before. You know, it doesn't really matter with those Google hits if there are 13 pages or hundreds of thousands of pages of hits because you're really only going to look at the first couple, anyway.

COX: That's a good point.

Prof. BLAIR: And in that sense, in the 16th century, they really had the sense that there were more books than any one person could master, and they needed shortcuts, basically.

COX: Now, let's talk about what some of those shortcuts were, and then we're going to open up the phones and we're going to talk to Adam from Minneapolis.

Overload has triggered some very practical solutions, dealing with the sorting, locating, selection, haven't they, over the years?

Prof. BLAIR: Absolutely. And so I would call reference books the general category of tools that have been around a long time, some of them predated the printing revolution. But printing certainly made a much broader range of people familiar with what we use still today, alphabetical indexing, for example, outlining detailed table of contents and books that collect what they called the best bits of all those books you wont have time to read yourself.

So some of these are in genres that are now dead, like the florilegium, although "Bartlett's Famous Quotations" is basically a kind of florilegium. It's a collection of quotables, of quotations by authoritative people. But it will be sorted by subject heading, so when you want an example or a quotation to put into your composition, whether your conversation or your sermon or a letter or a lecture, you could go to such reference book, look under the heading that was likely to be useful and choose a couple of items.

COX: Okay.

Prof. BLAIR: So these come in different scales. There are smaller ones for, you know, less expensively available, and there are huge ones accumulating up to 10 million words, in this one Magnum Theatrum of 1631, for example.

COX: So you just have to chop the tree down piecemeal to know what it is - to see what it is you're dealing with, as opposed to trying to absorb the entire thing right in front of you.

Prof. BLAIR: That's right. And you go in with a focus. You go in with something you want to pull out of this. And so that's why you need to understand what the subject heading terms are under which the work is organized or the index subject headings so that you can find something you want.

And of course, the author and the printers of these works are eager for you to find what you want, and they're constantly boasting. We have something here for everyone, for every interest. And they offer more and more different indexes with more and more different search terms in order to make sure that you don't come out empty handed.

COX: Why don't we take a call. Let's go to Adam from Minneapolis, Minnesota. Adam, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ADAM (Caller): Thank you.

COX: Do you have a question?

ADAM: Oh, actually it was just - more of a comment. I really think this is an interesting subject, and it's sort of like watching an old medium being pushed aside like - one way that I like to deal with, like, getting away from the Internet and Twitters and reddits and Facebooks of the digital age is just to kind of like read a book that Ive read a million times or find a smaller medium for the actual media than having to Google it.

I mean, I love reading Wikipedia about movies that I've watched and finding out little secrets about authors and stories behind the actual media, but I think it's important to separate yourself because books are an invaluable resource. And a lot of people that I know personally, you know, will turn to their e-readers or their droid phones before they'll pick up a book and reference something in it. So I think that's really important.

COX: Adam, thank you very much for the call.

Are we seeing, Ann, are we not, sort of an evolution then in the process of culling information and how we do it?

Prof. BLAIR: Absolutely. We're relying more and more on computers to do it, but I'd argue that we really need, as Adam was suggesting, to use our own minds to do it. Whether you're, you know, mainly reading from a physical book or from an e-reader, the key thing is to keep - set your own center of focus and attention so that you can come out with something that's good for you.

Of course, we all also derive pleasure and sometimes benefit from just sort of following the lead of a webpage, but I think you need to do both.

COX: All right. Let's take another call. This is Shaun(ph) from Cincinnati, Ohio. Shaun, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

SHAUN (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call

COX: You're welcome.

SHAUN: I got a quick question. Basically, you know, this subject of having so much information out there. I find sometimes, if I'm researching a subject or an issue that pertains to my life, I'm overwhelmed with just the amount of different, you know, whether it be quote, unquote, facts or opinions.

I can basically search for any answer I want and I'll find, you know, for example, is coffee good for me? You can search, you know, coffee is good for you or you can search coffee is bad for you, you know, and you'll get positive answers on each side of the spectrum.

My question is, how do you filter all these different quote, unquote, whether they be facts of opinions, and run that through a filter so you can basically get a good idea of how to solve a problem or, you know, form an opinion of your own?

COX: Shaun, thank you very much for that. That's an interesting question, Ann. It's almost one of accuracy versus quantity, huh?

Prof. BLAIR: Absolutely. That question has been around from the very beginning, and in the early modern period, the pedagogues would teach what they called judicium: judgment. That's what you want to impart to every child, and you train them by having them read the good stuff so that when they come across the bad stuff they'll have the judgments to tell the difference.

And I suppose we are constantly doing that ourselves. I, as an educator, I think that contact with teachers and, of course, parents and - is invaluable in helping form judgment about what's a reasonable answer, what's - as the kind of question you can expect to get an easy answer on.

Many questions have very nuanced answers and you need to have the nuance and both sides of the issue be present in your mind even as you might, you know, go forward with a preference. So I think, you know, old fashion methods of education still must count for a lot.

And of course, there are websites and websites. And so you need to have the skills to evaluate the context of what you're reading, where it's coming from, who's made the website, what's their purpose in doing, you know, in pushing this line and...

COX: I'd like to - I want to explore this with you a little bit deeper, if I may. And the reason is, as a journalist, we are taught that, you know, you get at least three sources before - to verify something. And the Internet has now made it - as our callers have indicated, and as you have as well - that that may or may not be sufficient anymore because it depends on which three sources you may get.

Are you able to offer to our listeners, people who are trying to figure out how they can personally begin to sort through this mountain of information - you're doing it in part already - but what are some of the specific kinds of things that we should do or can do, as we are trying to get from point A to point B without being inundated with information that we can't determine the veracity of it or it's more than we can handle?

Prof. BLAIR: Right. So personally, I tend to go for my librarys website, which has access to, you know, certain - basically their reference works that are online that have - and of course, being an academic, these would bear on the issues that I teach about, like science and religion or the history of early modern Europe. But there will be good reference books in just about any topic. Many of these reference books are likely to be online.

So I think one thing you can do even without access to a, you know, sort of propriety content, which Harvard University gives its faculty and students access to, is to look at a library catalog like Harvard's, which is open to the public, and become aware of the major sources, print sources, that then you can Google Books, and find on Google Books, find online.

COX: All right.

Prof. BLAIR: But you have that way an independent filter, which isn't just the Google chemical algorithm that feeds you top hits, although, hey, I use Google a lot. You can kind of, you know, have a cross-cutting analysis by using some of the more traditional tools, too.

COX: Let's take another call. This is one from Terry in Salt Lake City. Hello, Terry(ph). You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

TERRY (Caller): Oh, hi. I just wanted to mention the problem with this so-called information overload, whether it's just a person at their PC or a researcher even, is you need to cut down, obviously, the number of results. And in order to that well, you have to understand to some extent the software you're using, like Google and so forth, how does that search engine function? What does it look for?

And once you understand the way it works, you can fine-tune your inquiries so that you get a lot less dross with your answers. You know, instead of maybe 20 pages, you'll only get two. But you have to apply it the right away because if you apply it the wrong way, you don't find what you want. So you kind of have to understand the stuff you're working with, the technical stuff, a little bit in order to find the information you want without getting overloaded.

COX: Terry, thank you very much for the call. His call reminds me, Ann, of something I hear people saying a lot. What did we do before computers? How did we handle this? And you've talked a little about it, but give us a sense, once again, from a historical perspective, how people managed to sift through information before the digital age?

Prof. BLAIR: Well, they, I think, took advice about what to read from teachers, for example, from other peers and colleagues. And, of course, I - I'm a firm believer in personal context. I get a lot of my best references from people who know what I'm working on and will have suggestions for me. And then they would take notes. So I'm a big fan of note-taking myself too. And this how-to-take-notes is one of the things that teachers really published about for the first time in 16th century.

It's about recording what you found best in what you read, so you can find it again. And so you don't have to research for Google - research Google all the time, so you can return to things that you have valued. And, of course, you hope to keep them in memory, but in practice you won't keep all of them in memory. And that's where the note-taking techniques that they taught are still, I think, are valued today by assigning a heading under which you hope to retrieve this information again in - so now I take notes on computer, mainly.

Of course, in their time, they took notes on sheets of paper, in ink. Then we went through the index card, which is still very much in use today, and makes for sort of a smaller and more mobile, you know, medium for note-taking.

COX: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Time is running really short, but this is a question that a caller has. I wanted to see if we squeeze them in before we have to say good-bye. Casey(ph), you're on from Los Angeles. Casey? Oh, we lost Casey. Well, I'll tell you what Casey had called about.

Casey wanted to know - he says - I'm not sure if it was a he or she, actually - that this wasn't - this is a generational issue. And that this person, Casey, being young, I'm assuming, is not overloaded. We don't have much time, so I need as succinct an answer as you can give me, that this doesn't bother this person. It's only us old people that have trouble with it.

Prof. BLAIR: Well, maybe she'll get old too...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BLAIR: ...and become bothered by it. I think as a - when you start having specific goals you want to accomplish, then, you know, that professional focus tends to make you feel more uncertain about, you know, have you done enough to be able to go forward? When is enough research and when is too much?

COX: You know, the other question that this raises is, we have gone through these cycles of explosions of information, which suggest to me and I'm asking you, are we yet to see an even bigger one in the future?

Prof. BLAIR: I would bet so. How can it be like...

COX: How can it not be? If history...

Prof. BLAIR: Yes.

COX: ...does repeat itself, doesn't it? Ann, thank you so much. Ann Blair, a professor of history at Harvard University, the author of a new book, "Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age." She joined us from a studio at Harvard University. You can find a link to her article on our website, just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Ann, once again, thank you for coming on.

Prof. BLAIR: Thank you.

COX: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Neal Conan. We'll see you tomorrow.

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