By Bob Latham
The advent of the digital information age has given those of us alive on the planet further cause for self pity, specifically the feeling of information overload. How can we ever keep up with the information inundating us, if not actively bombarding us? How can we read all the blogs, tweets, e-books, online articles, etc. that are available to us? How can we be comfortable with the reliability of reference materials that seek to compile this information to save us some trouble?
Believe it or not, this lament is not new. It has plagued the human species before. The history of feeling the crush of information overload, and what has been done about it, is chronicled in remarkable detail in a new book titled “Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age” by Harvard University history professor Ann Blair. Its 400 dense pages are not for someone looking for a casual read (sorry John Grisham fans). In other words, it is not the type of book that I would expect someone to be spilling suntan lotion on. But it does provide thoroughly researched confirmation of how, as ABBA sang, “the history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.” And in the interest of full disclosure, I did not just stumble onto “Too Much to Know” – rather, the author is my niece. The difference between her and me, however, is that she quotes the likes of Isidore of Seville and Vincent of Beavais, and I quote ABBA.
In the old days – not the old days before the digital age but rather the old days before written history – knowledge was in the hands of storytellers and tribal elders. When humans moved from an oral culture to the first writings, that dynamic changed. How did one have access to all of these papyrus writings, and which ones were important?
The fact that it might not be possible for one person to accumulate all “knowledge” must have been a stark realization to the elite of the early written age – though it would be several more millennia before Woody Allen would raise the philosophical question in “Without Feathers”: “Is knowledge knowable, and if not, how do we know this?” [Once again, my own contribution to this scholarship, not that of my niece.] The library of Alexandria which sought to assemble papyrus writings in the 3rd century B.C., was an attempt to address the growing problem of how to assemble and categorize information.
The educated classes around the time of Christ perhaps felt the same way we do when we conduct a Google search and get 1.7 million references. Ecclesiastes 12:12 includes this frustrated observation: “of making books there is no end.” And Seneca’s distringit librorum multitude in the 1st century A.D. stated: “the abundance of books is a distraction.” With that “abundance of books” came the same angst we feel today: which books are reliable? Is there a quicker way to access and digest all the information in those books? The need for reliable information in the face of this perceived literary overload led Pliny the Elder in 77 A.D. to complete Historia Naturalis, a compilation of 20,000 “facts.” Pliny the Elder no doubt retired as the undefeated Jeopardy champion of the 1st century.
When paper became widely available at the start of the Renaissance, the frustration of information overload intensified. It became even worse in the 16th and 17th centuries when printing presses spat out books not only in much greater volume but also much more economically, thereby allowing people at a socioeconomic status below the educated elite to share the burden of information overload. The need for more shortcuts to information led to such compilations as the Encyclopedia Britannica — the halfway point, perhaps, between Pliny the Elder’s treatise and today’s digital information aggregators. It is a journey well chronicled in “Too Much to Know.”
— Bob Latham is a partner at Jackson Walker. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the firm, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.