Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Information Overload

In this article it is suggested that the idea of the Internet causing information overload is a myth, based on the fact that people have raised concerns about the deleterious mental effects of new technologies throughout history. It tells of Conrad Gessner, the 16th century Swiss scientist who compiled the Bibliotheca universalis, an index of every book that was available at the time, who worried that such an abundance of information was "confusing and harmful" to the mind. The article goes on to suggest that since someone felt this way about the world of printed books back in the 1500s, our own 21st century concerns about information overload are just as unfounded.

But wait. We are assuming that Gessner was wrong about the problem of information overload in his time. And we are concluding from this that we, too, must be mistaken about information overload caused by the Internet age. Well, what if Gessner was right to realize that the vast world of printed books was too much for any one human mind to handle? And what if the exponential expansion of Web sites and other media in our own time has only made an already monumental problem a thousand times worse?

In terms of human brain capacity, we are no more intelligent than our Cro-Magnon forebears (who were not grunting troglodytes but articulate human beings with finely crafted tools and weapons, religious beliefs and practices, and sophisticated art). Google may not be making us stupid, but it is not making us any smarter either.

The ironic result of our millenia of accumulating human knowledge is that the individual human being can know less and less of the knowledge that is available to the human race as a whole. This is a simple mathematical fact, given that the body of human knowledge keeps growing while the capacity and capability of the human brain remains constant.

So, while it might have been possible for a Cro-Magnon sage in a fire-lit Ice Age cavern to know basically all that a human being was capable of knowing at that point in time, the ability of any one person to master all of human knowledge has gradually shrunk to the point of impossibility (which it had reached at least by the invention of the printing press, if not sooner).

In short, the Information Age has only accelerated the further diminishment of the individual human being's knowledge as a proportion of all available human knowledge. Perhaps Google really is making us stupid.

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