Every morning, I read through my Google Reader feeds (at home and at work), organize my email inbox, browse the headlines on ESPN, listen to NPR’s Morning Edition, check for updates on my favorite blogs, and absently peruse the ads that accompany them all. Before 8am.
Every day, more and more digital media makes its way onto the web, as companies invest millions in new gadgets to deliver that content to consumers. Many predict the volume of electronic data will reach the zettabyte (one billion terabytes) mark this year. The devices we use to access this information – laptops, tablets, and mobile devices – are finding their way into the hands of more people each year, with the smartphone market alone expected to grow to 297 million devices next year.
As the sheer volume of content available to the masses continues to rise, we’ve begun to hear the resurgence of phrases like “information overload” and “data deluge“.
Are we distributing knowledge faster than we can process it? How do we get a handle on this massive flow of information?
As others have recently pointed out, this isn’t the first time humanity has faced this particular dilemma. In his recent book “The Shallows“, Nicholas Carr mentions that society faced a similar challenge with the invention of the printing press in the 15th century. “When books and periodicals began to flood the marketplace, people for the first time felt overwhelmed by information.” He quotes an English writer who, in 1600, complained:
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.
In an article for Slate, Vaughan Bell points out that such concerns might stretch back even further, to Socrates’ warnings against the dangers of the written word itself. For a society built on the recitation of oral histories, even a single scroll or book could “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories.”
Still, we managed to get by. Ann Blair, professor of history at Harvard University, tells us that the flood of new data introduced to the Renaissance-era public resulted in a number of innovative methods to manage the information.
These included 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.
Fast-forward 500 years later and we’re experiencing something of a second information Renaissance. Fifty million new websites appear on the web each year, along with 90 trillion email messages, 30 billion Facebook photos, and 300 million internet users.
Like those in Gutenberg’s day, we need to find new ways to handle this abundance of data. This means selecting, sorting, organizing, filing, linking, presenting, and delivering information in a way that compliments our human-ability to make judgments and take action.
In other words, we must create solutions that make information useful.