An Embarrassment of Riches by Vincent McCaffrey
I read recently in the Boston Globe that there is too much information. ‘Information overload’ it was called. I am sure the author was speaking from her own point of view, and as a subjective problem, I cannot judge this. But as a generalization of fact, the theory is faulty in too many ways to address in a short essay. It reminds me of the line in the movie ‘Amadeus’ where the Austrian Emperor Joseph II says there are “simply too many notes” in the great composer’s music.
Now, unless new matter is yet being created in that portion of the universe closest to us, there is no more now than before. And we (mankind) have never known even an infinitesimal amount about what there is to know of matters directly before us. Simply, there has always been more information available to us than any one human being can absorb.
If the author meant to say that there are too many books (as in ‘written information’), then the same truth holds. It has always been so. Before the printing press, there were too many books to read in a single lifetime. Just think of all the languages on Earth in 1450 and all the different ways the world was defined in those languages.
A particular conceit of some in our age is that there is more ‘correct’ information now that ever before. Such hubris can be heard throughout the ages. Isn’t the matter really just that the accepted wisdom of the ‘powers that be’ at any given time are threatened by ‘different’ information, whether new or not, true or false?
I was reading a book by Cornelius Weygandt about New Hampshire from the 1930’s recently. Every page contained wonderful information I had never known. And that information has been sitting there in that book since the time it was written.
When Homer recited the Odyssey to his amanuensis, he was telling tales told by others before him. How much information did he lose in his version? And he was not alone. There were many other storytellers in Greek society at that time, as there were in every society before the written word became the primary means of communication. Homer is remembered because his version was written down and not lost later at the burning of the library at Alexandria. Just think of all that was lost in that fire!
Worse, as each day falls behind us and becomes history, we are taught again and again that most of what we think we know is wrong. Are we to keep track of all that rubbish as well?
What information does exist in written form at any one time, after all that has been lost or discarded, will be filtered by those who care to read it—a small minority in any case. And then much of that which is read will be ignored because it does not fit some preconceived template of what is important and what is not.
And so it goes.
The idea that there is too much information is directly linked to the oft heard complaint that there are too many books. And that is a parochial concept too foreign to my own sensibilities to accept.
There is really just too little time.