CTech's Book Review: Managing our information overloads in our social media age
David Lavenda, Chief Product Officer at harmon.ie, shares insights after reading “Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age” by Ann M. Blair.
Title: “Too Much To Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age”
Author: Ann M. Blair
The flood of information brought to us by advancing technology is often accompanied by a distressing sense of “information overload,” yet this experience is not unique to modern times. In this book, Harvard University historian Blair describes how the invention of the printing press and the ensuing abundance of books provoked sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European scholars to register complaints very similar to our own. Blair describes how humanity managed to overcome information overload using a host of innovations.
The book explores methods for information management in medieval Europe, such as note taking, the expansion of reference books like encyclopedias and finding devices, such as tables of contents, page numbers, headers, and the alphabetical book index. Blair focuses primarily on Latin reference books in print between 1500 and 1700. Combining methods of book history and intellectual history, Blair examines the techniques that scholars developed for gathering, sorting, and storing facts in an era of new technology and exploding information.
- It’s (always) different: living with today’s social media experience, we are convinced we are living through a unique time; the first time in history where we have too much information to process. But this is nothing new; it has happened many times in the past. One such time was with the advent of the printing press, when people were overwhelmed by many books for the first time. At that time, sixteenth-century Swiss polymath Conrad Gesner wrote “the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.” It is easy to hear similar “the sky is falling” predictions from 21st-century pundits. In this regard, Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) (1:9) said it best: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”
- We are very good at adapting: there is something to be learned from previous widespread adoptions of new technologies. Because regardless of how we define technological revolutions or their impact on society, one thing is true — throughout history, many people feared the use of new technologies. And while many of those people had good cause for worry, the fact is that we are still here. Humans are resilient and we are good at adapting to new realities.
- The key is organization: as during the time when the printing press was new, the key to getting a handle on too much information is to prioritize what is important. The current social media ‘filter bubbles’ that put us into ‘echo chambers’ need to be supplanted by something more useful. Just as our renaissance progenitors found ways to distill and prioritize information so that the most important bubbled up to the top of the pile, we need to develop 21st-century techniques to cope with today’s information deluge.
What I’ve Learned:
- ‘What goes around comes around’: Is all the fuss about being inundated by social media really warranted? Is the amount of information that we need to process on a daily basis truly a cause for concern? In other words, is it really different this time? While the obvious answer is yes, Blair makes it clear that this is not the first time society has had to deal with similar challenges. Following the period of disruption that came with the invention of the printing press, tools were developed to deal effectively with disruption and society enjoyed several centuries of relative stability in gathering, sorting, and consuming information. Reference books emerged that distilled large amounts of information into manageable chunks. New note-taking techniques helped people store and retain important information. And the book evolved to incorporate technologies like title pages, tables of content, chapters, page numbers, page headings, and indexes to help readers navigate and find information quickly. The conclusion is that social media represents only the latest of a number of prior information revolutions; revolutions we can examine to learn about today’s latest information overload crisis.
- Humans need to be in the driver’s seat: despite all the talk about AI and automation driving our online experiences, humans will need to take control of how we use information technologies. The detrimental impact of Facebook’s algorithms is patently obvious; we will need to take back control of how we consume information – at home as well as in the office. The explosion of the use of Slack, Teams, and Zoom at work is creating a new kind of information overload; another one with which we will need to learn to cope.
While Blair refers to information overload, she never clearly defines the term ‘information’. Information is a tricky concept to define, often being conflated with data and knowledge. Researchers have tried to tease out the differences, but in the end, the concept of having too much ‘stuff’ to read is somewhat nebulous. The result is that there are multiple problems that need to be solved. When a problem is not well defined, it is harder to craft the appropriate tools to overcome the problem. For today’s audience, the message is that we need to invest more effort in defining the problems so that we can find effective solutions to overload.
Who Should Read This Book:
Anyone interested in understanding the role of new technology in creating information overload and how to deal with it. Some examples include salespeople concerned with how people select products and services when faced with too much information and too many choices; managers concerned with how to create an effective corporate culture; brands in the face of overwhelming ‘info-noise’; and even concerned citizens worried about the manipulation of popular opinion by rogue actors who flood the ether with misinformation and disinformation.