Jim Fleming: Information overload may seem like a quintessentially 21st century problem, but more than 2000 years ago people complained about the very same thing. The rise of the printed word and the creation of the printing press also flooded the world with vast new streams of information. And it took people a while to figure out how to store and manage all the new knowledge. Historian Ann Blair charts this history in her book, "Too Much To Know". Anne Strainchamps spoke with her.
Anne Strainchamps: We tend to think of information overload as a distinctly modern problem, especially now in the Internet age. But your work suggests that people worried about this for centuries.
Ann Blair: Absolutely. The theme of there being too much to know, too many books to read, goes really way back. But I like to focus especially on the first century of the common era. So a contrast between two Romans, Seneca on the one hand, and Pliny on the other. The Seneca line is, "Too many books is distraction. Choose a few books, read them carefully and well." On the opposite though, Pliny's concern is that too many books is good, but we need to master them all. His line is, "There is no book so bad that some good cannot be gotten from it."
Strainchamps: But this is fascinating. Back before there were printed books people were already worried about the proliferation of information.
Blair: I would say so. It doesn't take much to the overload human brain. Once you have writing you can accumulate text the cross generations. The library of Alexandria, in the third century before the common era, was trying to keep a text of every single Greek text known. They would forcibly borrow texts from incoming ships and make copies to stock their library. But there was a sense of corpus that you needed to hold and contain. And we don't really know how many texts they had. But basically hundreds of thousands of papyrus roles were stored in that library before it burned, of course, in one of the great tragic moments of loss of learning.
Strainchamps: Do you think people feel the same sort of anxiety the same sort of motions that we feel when we feel inundated by too much information?
Blair: If you look at a renaissance doctor like Girolamo Cardano, he is a practicing physician. He has an abundant correspondents. He's trying to write books, he wrote dozens of them. He's clearly a man who is constantly pressed for time and talks about how you should read a book in parts, marking the difficult passages to return to later. And even more amazing, he talks about how you can write a book by rearranging a text that you or others have already written by cutting and pasting it and slapping on pages to send the printer.
Blair: So shortcuts are definitely well known to scholars. Pliny, for example, he felt any kind of reading that didn't involve no taking was idle. And so he only travel by carriage because that way he could have someone take dictation. He was read to while eating, while bathing, and so on. So never a moment to waste, is certainly a long running concern of scholars.
Strainchamps: So very early on this obsession with note taking picked up.
Blair: Well, note-taking is a wait of recording of the good stuff so you can retrieve it later, so that you can share it with a later self. Or with other people. So I think it is one of the first tools of information management.
Strainchamps: As note-taking developed and became the regular practice of any self respecting scholar, then techniques for note-taking began to be developed. So what are some of the most famous note-taking techniques?
Blair: The renaissance pedagogues felt that young boys mostly, were to start taking notes as soon as they could read basically. They would underline the good bits in the books and then they would copy them over onto separate notebooks. Often copy them over twice. The idea being that the copying in itself was a way of slowing down the mind, forcing to pay attention, and helping you to retain the material. Of course at the scale of a lifetime the idea was that you would accumulate notes throughout your reading, but also throughout your daily experience, conversations were people. And you would accumulate these things on the scale of volumes and volumes of notes. Of course then you'd have a problem that you couldn't actually remember what you had taken and so you'd get advice about how to index your notes.
Strainchamps: You discovered something in the 17th century called the note closet?
Blair: so this is sort of like a large hanging closet, but turned into a storage for notes taken on slips of paper. Whereby you would have many many headings inscribed on pieces of wood, and behind each heading there would be a metal poker onto which you could stick basically you're index card, your piece of paper. The great fear about taking notes on slips of paper is that they would blow away with an open window or open door. And this note closet was a way of controlling that potential chaos by attaching the slip of paper to the heading under which it belonged. Of course, you can also rearrange the slip. That's the great power of it. And ultimately, as I discovered when I was working on how very big books were made in the early modern period, many of these notes slips were used to actually compose from. So rather than going to the trouble of copying out your notes, you'd take your notes, cut them into slips, and then glue them onto sheets of paper from which the printed book would be made.
Strainchamps: What so remarkable in listening to you is that technology has changed but not our organizational practices. What you just described as something that we all do every day in basic word processing programs. Cut and paste.
Blair: Absolutely. And it's been done with scissors and glue and paper, and ink on paper, for many many centuries.
Strainchamps: So if people were first concerned with simply taking notes, and kind of calling the good stuff, at what point did people begin to think about how to organize? How to file all this information so that somebody else could come along and find it?
Blair: While that's where the subject headings come in. And I think a crucial role for sorting information was played by printed books, which offered you in print, ready-made, the kind of notes you wished you'd taken yourself but didn't have time to. So this is the encyclopedia, which doesn't have the title encyclopedia basically until, let's say 1750, with the famous Encyclopedia of Diderot and d'Alembert. But it has the form of accumulating many bits of knowledge, sorted. Even already in the 13th century, if not before.
Strainchamps: What are some of the other most famous early encyclopedias?
Blair: Well, one of my favorites is the blockbuster of the period, Theodore Stinger's "Theater of Human Life." Where he offered basically portrayal of all human behavior, just as God will see it at the last judgment. So only a slight bit of hubris there. It starts at 1.5 million words, it grows in his lifetime to 4.5 million words. And the copy is sort of augmented in a sequel after his death to a 10 million words. You should keep in mind that the 1985 last print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica is 40 million words. So this is going from a tenth to a quarter of the size of our latest printed encyclopedia.
Strainchamps: It's interesting because a way that you describe it there's sort of two competing instincts in human nature I guess. There is information overload and on the other hand there is a lust for information. So on the one hand we complain about feeling that we're drowning in information, and we come up with strategies for organizing and condensing information. But we obviously have a tremendous appetite for it as well.
Blair: Absolutely. We're brought this on ourselves. We want all the information. I don't think there'd be many people out there who would be pleased to see the one Google hit that meets their needs gone because it was considered excessive. And in fact the whole movement of deletionism within Wikipedia is a fascinating example of, when is too much too much? And who is to decide? So in fact the people who vote the articles others think are useless don't feel that way.