• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Information overload or a search for meaning?

Ours is said to be an Age of Distraction, in which the frenzied pace of technological change makes it difficult if not impossible to focus and concentrate on challenging books and texts. In universities many academics argue that the constant culture of browsing on the internet has undermined students’ interest in serious deep reading. It is also frequently asserted that our capacity for attention is also constantly challenged by the relentless production and flow of information. Information anxiety expressed through the idiom of Information Overload is frequently represented as the normal state of affairs of life in the 21st century.

Since Richard Wurman published his best-selling book Information Anxiety in 1989, agonizing about Information Overload-related pathologies has become a regular topic of cultural commentary. Often the flow of digitally mediated information is expressed through the metaphor of a flood, with the implication that if most of us are not literally drowning we are least overwhelmed by it. It is often asserted that businesses are “drowning in data” and that creativity is difficult if not impossible “when you’re facing a flood of information.” Apparently, Information Overload does not merely inhibit creativity. It is also held responsible for a variety of afflictions connected to the distracting effects of exposure to “too much information.”

In line with Western society’s therapeutic sensibility, apprehensions about information overload are often articulated in terms of a medical diagnosis. The language of psychology and increasingly that of neuroscience is deployed to legitimate the claim that the digitally driven explosion of information is harmful to people’s health and well-being. The recently invented term “information fatigue syndrome” offers a diagnostic category to capture the sensibility of a cultural malaise. Its main symptom is that of poor concentration, which is apparently the outcome of the overloading of short-term memory. Another variant of this cultural malaise is what David Mikics, author of Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, has characterised as “Continuous Partial Attention.” Mikics contends that “kids who grow up with the digital technology are more susceptible to the diseases of constantly divided attention than older generations.” He argued that “multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking.”

Often the flood of information is held to be directly or indirectly responsible for what used to be described as an existential crisis of meaning experienced by an individual writer. “What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs, quick takes and fragments, that add up to the anxiety of the age,” wrote David Ulin in The Lost Art of Reading. Numerous other commentators echo this sensibility, illustrating their concerns about information overload with personal accounts. Nicholas Carr, in his widely cited crie de coeur, The Shallows, wrote of the anxiety associated with information overload and acknowledges that his own power of concentration has waned to the point that it starts “to drift after a page or two.” In a similar vein, the author and essayist Tim Parks wrote of his struggle to read and decried the “state of constant distraction we live in and how that affects the very special energies required for tackling a substantial work of fiction.”

Predictably, the numerous infirmities associated with information overload have been seized upon as a business opportunity by the self-help industry. Wurman’s Information Anxiety claims to provide “creative guidance” to readers who are looking for a cure for the uneasiness they experience from being overwhelmed by a surfeit of information. Books like The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Information Overload: Practical Strategies for Surviving in Today’s Workplace, Blur: How to Know What’s True in the Age of Information Overload, or How to Focus: How to Stay Focused in the Age of Information Overload So You Can Zero in on Your Success offer both a diagnosis and a treatment for an existential condition that supposedly confronts us all.

A Short History of Too Much Choice

It could well be that 21st-century society is experiencing a sense of disorientation about how to manage too much information, and it could be that new technology does indeed have distinctive effects on our brains. But our ancestors expressed similar concerns, and it won’t do to dismiss those concerns simply by assuming that they were wrong but we are right. There may be something else going on here, which has less to do with the volume of information we can expose ourselves to if we choose and more to do with self-knowledge about our purposes and knowledge frameworks.

My research into the history of reading shows that since the invention of writing people have been concerned about the capacity of people to handle and process the content of the written text. Ancient societies such as Greece and Rome did not need digital gadgets, global interconnectivity, or Big Data to raise concerns about the perils of information flows. It was Plato, writing through the mouth of Socrates, who first raised the alarm about the risks that emanate from the circulation of information communicated through the written text. Socrates was apprehensive about the potentially disruptive consequences of the technology of writing. He asserted that unlike verbal communication writing is indiscriminate in that it does not choose its audience, but “roams about everywhere.” Writing does not discern between readers who can understand and benefit from a communication and those who will become misled and confused by it. He warned that writing reaches those with “understanding no less than those who have no business with it.” (1) In line with the paternalistic worldview of his era, Socrates assumed that in the wrong hands a little knowledge was a threat to social order. He also famously predicted that once people became reliant on written texts it would have a deleterious effect on their memory.

One did not have to be an ancient Greek to think this way. One could also be an ancient Jew. The rabbis were for a time very reluctant to commit to writing the Oral Law, the tradition of scriptural interpretation that eventually became the first part of the Talmud: the Mishnah. Then the same thing happened again: A later generation of rabbis resisted committing to writing the oral interpretation of the Mishnah, which later became the second part of the Talmud: the Gemorrah. And their reasons were not all that different from those of Socrates. They believed that knowledge was by nature dialectical and could only emerge from living discussion. If knowledge were put in writing it would die and ossify, and hence be prone to mislead later generations.

Plato’s concern with the flow of information was directly related to his preoccupation with the capacity of people to discriminate between texts that were morally worthy and those that were not. Fear about the effect that written information could have on people’s outlook was channeled through the perception that there were far too many texts and manuscripts in circulation. Too many books were taken to mean too much choice, which in turn raised questions about which text could be trusted to possess genuine authority.

That is one reason why, from ancient times to the modern era, moralistic advice on reading has tended to warn against the habit of unrestrained reading. The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca, in his letter to Lucilius written between 63 and 65 CE, advised that the “reading of many books is a distraction” that leaves the reader “disoriented and weak.” Again, this sounds a lot like the earlier rabbinic tradition, which holds that it was King Solomon himself who lamented, “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Seneca further asserted that “you must linger among a limited number of master-thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” Seneca’s advice continued to widely advocated by century self-help manuals down to the late 19th century.

Seneca’s call to limit the habit of reading to a few books anticipated the current tendency to associate too much information with a disordered spirit and a distracted mind. That Seneca believed that the reading of too many books “tends to make you discursive and unsteady” at a time when the availability of reading material was relatively limited suggests that what he feared was not its quantity but the capacity of people to gain meaning from it. His perception of a Roman mind overloaded by too many books can be interpreted as a sublimated expression of his concern with people’s capacity to process and gain meaning from their content

The idea that there is “too much information” predated not only the invention of the internet but also of the printing press. Ann Blair in her study, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age, noted that, although the “dominant reaction to printing was one of great admiration for it as a ‘divine invention’,” there were also lots of complaints about its disconcerting impact on society. She contends that “by the mid-sixteenth century comments on the impact of printing often focused on the vast and cumulative increase in the numbers of books being written and printed.” (2)

It was the arrival of the printing press that provoked the reaction that directly anticipates the current discussion on information overload. It is at this point that the flood metaphor emerged as an idiom through which disquiet about the publishing of new sources of information was often expressed. In 1526, the Dutch humanist philosopher Erasmus asked if there is “anywhere on earth” which is “exempt from these swarms of new books?” He complained about the “flood” of new books and condemned them for their “foolish, libellous, mad, impious and subversive” consequences. (3) More than a century later the French Huguenot historian Henri Basnage de Beauval (1657–1710) articulated similar fears when he spoke of the Republic of Letters being submerged by “a new kind of flood and overflow of books.” (4)

The unease provoked by the growing number of books published with the help of the technology of printing was often linked to the conviction that their sheer number would make it difficult for people to discriminate between sources of essential truth and knowledge and those that misled the reading public. The problem of choice was represented as a serious challenge to the early modern mind. Rene Descartes (1596–1650) personified this attitude. He took the view that the need to consult so many books to gain knowledge was an inefficient use of time.

In 1600, Barnaby Rich, an English writer lamented that “one of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world.” (5) The perception that the proliferation of published texts had significant downsides was fairly widespread by the 17th century. By this point, there was already seen to be a glut of printed texts; according to one English critic they were “begotten only to distract and abuse the weaker judgments of scholars.” (6) The sentiment that far too much was published has always expressed insecurities about the human capacity to understand and gain meaning from the surrounding world.

It was around this point that there was an explicit recognition of the relationship between the production of knowledge and information anxiety. In 1605, in his The Advancement of Learning, the philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon stated that “in spacious knowledge there is much contristation, and that he that increaseth knowledge increaseth anxiety.” The close association that Bacon drew between the development of knowledge and information anxiety indicated that perhaps he intuited that the development of science might raise as many questions as it answered.

An examination of the information revolution that succeeded the invention of printing indicates that what was at stake was not so much the quantity of texts but the challenge of choosing and discriminating between them. The sudden availability of a growing number and variety of topics raised the question of how readers could cope with the explosion of new publications and information. Perceptions of an information overload emerge when society lacks an authoritative philosophical and intellectual paradigm through which sources of information and knowledge can be interpreted. In Europe the contestation of intellectual authority in the centuries following the Reformation created the conditions in which information overload was perceived as a problem.

Growth in the number and diversity of publications raised questions about the capacity of readers to discriminate between the authoritative and valuable books and those that had little intellectual or moral worth. Educators were at a loss as to how to guide the reading of their students. In her study of the culture of teaching in the early modern era, Rebecca Bushnell argued that “more than any other factor, it was the startling proliferation of knowledge and of books themselves that shaped the early humanists’ development of their curricula.” (7) What bothered humanist teachers was that “books might affect the young with ungodliness or bad style.” The educator Juan Luis Vives lamented “the number of books is now grown so immense” that “not a few are seized by terror, and a hatred of study, when they confront in every discipline the volumes requiring inexhaustible labour to read.” (8) Educators and their pupils had become conscious of the fact that it was not possible to read everything. With so many books to choose from, directing or guiding the choices and activities of readers became a major enterprise.

Complaints about an abundance of books or information were often sublimated expressions of the unease associated with the contestation of the intellectual authority of texts. With authors offering competing versions and interpretations of the “truth,” readers were confronted with the constant challenge of deciding what is and what is not worth reading. The contestation of intellectual and moral authority, which coincided with the expansion of printed texts, was often perceived through the prism of information overload. For European societies, which were “founded on the mastery of long-lived textual traditions” in both philosophy and religion, the “printing of new and newly recovered opinions posed with renewed intensity the difficult problem of reconciling conflicting authorities.” (9)

Apprehensions about the availability of too much choice often mutated into disquiet about the physical and medical consequences of information anxiety. According to some 18th-century moralizers, the availability of an excessive number of books was responsible for causing mental upheaval among readers, which in turn unsettled their minds. A new problem of cognition was discovered linked to technological change, which created the conditions for the kind of “unsettled reading” that Richard Steele of the Guardian criticized as far back as 1713 because it “naturally seduces us into an undetermined manner of thinking.”

In the late 18th century, the Bristol physician Thomas Beddoes lashed out against the distractions caused by information overload. Beddoes railed against the tyranny of “quick desultory reading” which, he insisted, disoriented the mind. Preoccupation with cognition was influenced by a growing tendency to perceive distracted and inattentive reading as a major cultural problem. Beddoes argued that his era was suffering from chronic information overload—“all those pamphlets and periodicals, novels and newspapers befuddling the brain! ‘Did you see the papers today? Have you read the new play—the new poem—the new pamphlet—the last novel?’ was all you heard: You cannot creditably frequent intelligent company, without being prepared to answer these questions, and the progeny that springs from them.”

The Meaning of Information

A brief review of the experience of history indicates that the awareness of too much information is a highly subjective one. Such perceptions emerged a long time before society was drowning in information; indeed, it did so at a time when the availability of written text was relatively limited. The sentiment that there is “too much” information was underpinned by the understanding that there were limits to the capacity for the absorption of the written text and the ability to interpret and gain meaning from new sources of information. Both historically and today, therefore, the real issue confronting society is how to give meaning to information—in other words, how to use information to create knowledge. The phrase “too much information” is directly related to the question of distinguishing between what is essential and what is of minimal importance, a task that, alas, does not come easily to everyone. It is through the process of selection and of interpretation that that any given quantity of information ceases to be experienced as a burden and can be transformed into authoritative and meaningful knowledge.

The current usage of terms like Information Age, Information Overload, or Information Explosion is significant because of its focus on abstract quantities of data. The existing tendency to quantify data and reduce it to bytes, characters, or column inches overlooks what is of concern and of use to people, which is information about something specific that is related to some purpose. In previous times the question of evaluation, selection, and ultimately the authority of knowledge was more explicitly addressed by those concerned with too much information. In the present era there is a palpable hesitancy about making judgments about knowledge and truth; that, above all, is what produces the difficulty of knowing what is worthy of our attention and focus and what is not. So long as a person’s engagement with the flow of information takes on a peculiarly passive quality, a sense of overload, anxiety, distractibility, and frustration are inevitable.

This passive and hesitant orientation is most disturbingly expressed through a growing tendency to accommodate the supposed problems of attention and distraction inflicted on people by the forces unleashed by Information Overload. In higher education the conviction that undergraduates no longer possess the attention span to read serious books has gained widespread influence. In her recent book, Sherry Turkle, the well-known sociologist of digital culture, cites university students saying that “we are not as strong as technology’s pull.” (10) Unfortunately, many academics have acquiesced to the apparent loss of students’ power of concentration by replacing books with handouts of key passages or with “stimulating” visual material. As Turkle noted, “even academically ambitious students rebel when they see a reading list that includes more than one long book.”11 No doubt this accommodation to “fractured attention” is justified on the grounds that it constitutes a response to the workings of information fatigue syndrome in higher education.

The principal response to the anxiety about Information Overload has been a technical one, namely, trying to improve the processing and management of information. But the development of new techniques of storage and retrieval of information does not relieve their users of the burden of interpreting it and understanding what it means. To gain meaning is a cultural accomplishment, not technical one. Unfortunately, Western society has become estranged from the messy business of engaging with meaning. This sensibility is vividly captured by the oft-repeated idiom (‘That’s too much information!”), so common that it’s now often communicated in texting simply by thumbing out “TMI.” This idiom is often used playfully to warn about “over-sharing” personal details or inappropriate sentiments. But the very fact that the ambiguities of everyday encounters are expressed through a language that quantifies personal communication (“too much”) and reduces it to abstract information speaks to a culture that all too readily assigns people the role of passive victims of information overload.

The corollary of Information Overload is the phenomenon of what Nico Macdonald, a British writer on digital culture, has characterised as Paradigm Underload. Macdonald notes that the problem facing society is not the quantity of information but the conceptual tools and paradigms with which to “filter, prioritise, structure and make sense of information.” Unfortunately, without a paradigm, the meaning of human experience becomes elusive to the point that the worship of Big Data displaces the quest for Big Ideas.

1) See Plato, Phaedrus, 275.
2) Ann Blair, Too Much to Know, Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 48.
3) Erasmus is cited in Blair, Too Much to Know, p. 55.
4) Cited in Blair, Too Much to Know, p. 58.
5) Cited in Nicholas Carr, The Shallows (W.W. Norton, 2010), p. 168.
6) Sir Thomas Browne, cited in Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, ‪The Printing Press as an Agent of Change: Communications and Cultural Transformations in Early Modern Europe, Volume 1 (Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 19.
7) Bushnell, A Culture of Teaching: Early Modern Humanism in Theory and Practice (Cornell University Press, 1996).
8) Cited in Bushnell, A Culture of Teaching, p. 118.
9) Blair, Too Much to Know, p. 57.
10) Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power Of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, 2015), p. 211.
11) Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation, p. 69.

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