Monday, December 06, 2010

Information Overload

The Sunday Globe (November 28, I'm a week behind in my reading) had an interesting article by Ann Blair called Information Overload: the early years. How to cope with all the information that we are exposed to everyday is something that I think about. I have noticed in the last year that I am less focused than I used to be. I suppose I could attribute it to the aging process but I think it has more to do with all the distractions that are in front of me as I work.

I love my computer. I love the freedom and control it offers me. I love being able to write something and turn it into a form that can be easily printed here at my own printer. No more going to the typesetter, with its cost and time. Yes, I know I'm dating myself. "What's a typesetter?" my daughter might ask.

The way the Internet has opened our access to knowledge and information is amazing and wonderful to me. Back in the 70s, I remember taking a Victorian Children's Literature class at Simmons College Center for the Study of Children's Literature. I was researching penny dreadfuls (and was thrilled when Sondheim's Sweeney Todd came on the scene shortly after) and running all over Boston and Cambridge to libraries. I remember that Harvard wouldn't let me look at their books without a note from the Simmons library telling me that they did not have the books in their collection. What a different world we live in.

On the down side, I will feel the urge to check my email in the middle of writing something. A thought will cross flit across my mind and instead of letting it pass by, I'll google the topic. I am very sympathetic to young people in school today. It is hard enough to discipline yourself to focus on the task at hand without distractions and temptations being on the very machine that you're working on. When I started to work for myself at home, I stopped reading page-turning books except on vacations. I couldn't face getting up every morning with a book calling me to read it instead of working. Now the calls are coming from the screen I am looking at as I work.

In the article, Ann Blair explains that dealing with more information that we have means to process is not a new phenomena. It has happened before. After the invention of printing in the 15th century, there was a sudden flood of new books. Erasmus, the early 16th century humanist wrote: "Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?" At that time, there developed new strategies for dealing with information: "early plans for public libraries, the first universal bibliographies that tried to list all books ever written, the first advice books on how to take notes, and encyclopedic compilations larger and more broadly diffused than ever before. Detailed outlines and alphabetical indexes let readers consult books without reading them through, and the makers of large books experimented with slips of paper for cutting and pasting information from manuscripts and printed matter — a technique that, centuries later, would become essential to modern word processing." She traces the development of several ways of ordering and sorting information. It's fascinating and hopeful.

A new technology does not act alone, after all, but in concert with our ambitions for it. Overload has long been fueled by our own enthusiasm — the enthusiasm for accumulating and sharing knowledge and information, and also for experimenting with new forms of organizing and presenting it.

Early modern compilers were driven by this enthusiasm, even beyond their hopes for acquiring reputation or financial gain. Today, we see the same impulse in the proliferation of cooperative information sharing on the Internet, such as the many designers and programmers sharing new ways to visualize and efficiently use huge quantities of data. In democratizing our ability to contribute to a universal encyclopedia of experience and information, the Internet has shown just how widespread that long-running ambition remains today.

You can read the article here.

and if you're interested in exploring the topic in more depth, you can read her book, Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age.

1 comment:

Nancy Hajeski said...

And remember the Periodic Guide to Literature, where you could find source material for research from magazines? That thing had to weigh 20 pounds. Now you can just Google a topic and find not only those same magazine articles, but also blogs, websites and image banks. Sure makes looking things up easier. I remember compiling a quote book and having 15 books scattered around me at the library table . . . and I was lucky if I got even one quote per book. The internet might be scrambling our brains in other ways, but it sure makes researching a lot less insane.

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