Information Overload Isn’t New

Short Summary:

There’s more data around us than ever before; we feel overloaded. The volume might be new, but the feeling and our responses are not. Ann Blair, in Too Much To Know, shows us how people dealt with the deluge of information in 16th and 17th century Europe– and the parallels with today are striking.

This week, three things:

The culture of curiosity in the period that led people to collect and value millions of words of “content”.

How people made sense of what they read through durable notes; and the decline of memory.

Third, some of the precursors to Wikipaedia – reference books collated over decades by collating the work of other people.

Want to know more?

This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.

  • The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
  • The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
  • I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck

If you want to know more about Livewired you can check out the short video here.

Starboard reflections,


This week’s video


There’s more data and information around us than ever before. But our responses to that, from a feeling of overwhelmed to creation by curation are nothing new. Ann Blair in Too Much To Know talks about how people responded to what they felt was overload in the 16th and 17th centuries.  

In this video, I’ll talk through how Blair connects writing, printing, and the internet, three technological revolutions that each provided an overloading amount of information. Secondly, I’ll talk about note-taking how people made sense of what they read and started consultative reading and thirdly, some of the precursors to Wikipedia – reference books, collated from a variety of sources over decades. 

I’ll start with a small caveat. Blair wrote before the rise of the algorithms. So many people now don’t consciously deal with their overload. They just have an environment around them that’s optimized to grab their attention, and that’s even worse in many ways than feeling overwhelmed. But that’s more common now. 

(Section 1 – Print and the Culture of Curiosity.) 

The fear that new technology and the explosion of information would lead to some negative consequences is a really old one. Plato feared that writing would lead to misunderstanding and misuse. In much the same way that now we fear deep fakes will lead to misunderstanding and misuse, people deliberately misinterpreting other people’s words and writing, and even inventing things and attributing them to other authors in Plato’s case or the people in our case.  

The fear is an analogous one. Seneca complained at the time again, in the ancient world in two and a bit thousand years ago that his contemporaries wasted their time reading too widely, the same way that many of our contemporaries complained that we wasted our time reading too widely. 

And what Blair does is she focuses in on a period and known to historians as the early modern period. So this is based in Europe, in the 16th and 17th centuries. And she focuses on what’s called a culture of curiosity, so learned and, fairly wealthy people at the time, all began to collect things. They began to collect, not just words and texts, but also objects and experiences and to pull things together in a sign of ostentatious curiosity. 

This culture of curiosity spread, diffused and became more broad than it had been before. So writing and thinking was no longer confined to those in the church and those in elite universities. It was still very confined, don’t get me wrong, but it was broader than before, there was a change. And the volume of information increased vastly as well.  

So there was a spread and increase in the circulation of knowledge and the questions over whether that knowledge was good, whether it was just copied, whether it was just taken from somebody else written quickly for profit. All of these things were there in the early modern period. And it was divisive too. So there were those who believe this was the utopian spread of knowledge, the idea of, a broader educated class that could all together lead us to a better world and, or guide us to a better world under God’s leadership. 

And those who believe that much of this knowledge wasn’t the right knowledge to be spreading in the first place or that the spread of this knowledge in such a quick way, led to people being distracted and people’s memories being curtailed and various other problems that you’d recognize from today too. 

(Section 2 – Note-taking) 

Before the early modern period, nearly all notes were on temporary surfaces. So think things like a chalkboard that could be wiped, clean, like a wax tablet that could be melted and re-flattened. So if you were writing and something, some notes from a book in order to write something yourself, or to impress somebody, your notes would be gone within a week or within a month or within a year, they will be lost to you. 

One of the things that happened in the early modern period as paper became cheaper. And people placed more value on collecting their notes due to this culture of curiosity, notes became something to store, to collate and to curate. So people looked after their notes when they work, when they were producing things and kept them for their whole lives, pass them on to their descendants who didn’t always enjoy them, but they got them nonetheless, or gave them to public study . 

So notes became important to the individuals concerned and secondly, accessible to historians.  

We have many marginal annotations, so lots of books that were printed. In the 16th and 17th centuries have margin annotations by the owners at the time. 

Most of these are things like finding aids. So there are things that if they flip through the book, people will see, a heading, which is like a topic name, or they’ll see a name that’s familiar to them, or they’ll just see a scrawl or a sign or a symbol that help them to find a passage that they want. 

I mean, these marginal annotations also include things like commentary, broader notes, recipes and prayers, but the use of notes in the margins for finding aids was particularly  common and increasingly common through the period. We also see a reduced stress being placed on memory as a sign of intelligence. 

So early in the 16th century, memory is venerated. The idea that you can remember everything that you need to have a learned debate is seen as the height of intelligence. By the end of this period and into the 18th century, what you need to remember, and this will be so familiar to you now, what you need to remember is where you wrote that down. 

The general form of organization was the heading. So headings are like a binder title for those of you who used to use binders, like a notebook name for those of you who use many of the note taking apps that we have today, and most people organize their notes into somewhere between around 40, which was the low end by, Jesuit preachers in particular, who thought the organization should be a fairly simple structure. 

Up to Thomas Harrison’s 3000 or 3,300 with expansion. And that was based around an idea of a note closet that Harrison proposed, which was a way of collecting your slips of notes. So a slip is like a small sheet of paper that can then be arranged onto pecs. 

So you can take your physical slip of paper and hang it on the right peg under the right heading. And the closet that he proposed was, was like an opening closet that you could open and see all 3000 of your headings in front of you and find all of your notes on a topic. Whether that’s for your own use or whether that’s for sharing with other people or for other people to browse at the notes closet as well. 

So the few instances where I think this was put into practice are often in group settings, in literary cell and things like that where people found having a common reference point was useful. And again, the echoes of that today are manifold and the way that we try and organize our own notes. 

(Section – the origins of Wikipedia – reference books)  

Another change in the period that resonates with today is that consultative reading became common. And so what I mean by consultative reading is what we will call Googling or searching or looking up.  

Reference books is a term that Blair uses that wasn’t used at the time and it covers a big variety of things. So I’ll just talk about a little bit about those because it shows how they organize the world and how for some of us it’s still quite similar in a way. 

The florilegium or collection of sentences, it’s the first one. So for those of you who are familiar with the use of quotes to inspire thought and to inspire, or just to encourage people to think that’s what these are. These collections of sentences come generally from renowned authors, generally from people whose names will be at the very least familiar, if not very well-known. 

And these were the best known genre of reference book at the time. In the early modern period, they’re often alphabetized or kind of heading systems. So the headings are the topics that are covered with no other indexing, no other organization or anything. And the idea is that over time you will become familiar with your collection of sentences, the ones that you’ve collected or that you’ve curated for yourself. 

And you’d be able to find a sentence on any of the topics that interests you from the appropriate authority. 

The second genre of writing a note-taking here, and that can be considered under reference books is the commonplace book. So this is a much broader collection, not just sentences and quotes, but also notes of behavior from other people, the noting down of things that you hear the collection of images and collection of anything else. 

So one of the key differences, I think from most reference books today is that in the early modern period, most of these commonplace books, didn’t extensively place judgment on what they’ve reported. Space was left for the reader in a way that most contemporary works now don’t leave space for the reader to think.