Information Overload, Part the Second

AKA, That feeling of exhilarating wonder you get upon walking into a bookstore over just how many things there are to read, immediately followed by the terrifying sinking feeling over remembering you will never have enough time in your life to read them all.

Is that the longest subtitle ever? I want an award.

So in my last post about information overload, I touched on the way we use the internet and how it constantly demands our attention to a hundred different things. Now I’m going to take things in a different direction and look at the fact the world has so much more information in it than there has ever been before. Perhaps you don’t share my uneasy combination of wonderment/despair at the sheer number of books in bookstores or libraries (there really needs to be a word for that feeling, if there isn’t). But perhaps you’ve researched for a paper or assignment, or attempted to pursue the literature of a topic you like. For all but the most obscure topics, you’ve probably found that there is just. so. much. information.

How does one decide what to read and research in, when reading everything becomes impossible? You could be writing a research paper and have thirty books stacked next to you, and no matter what you end up writing you’ll know there could have been more; you could have read more, found more, flipped through and skimmed more. At what point does the amount of information become too much? At some point it can turn from a beautiful fountain of information wealth into a stressful overload that’s too much to handle. This does link back to how much information is available on the internet, as well. Part of the reason that the web is able to so successfully captivate our attention is the sheer amount of information it contains. There are so many web pages, so much data and information floating around on the web, that we don’t even have a good system for finding what we need to find (news flash for those not in the know: Google can’t actually find everything; in fact, it really sucks at finding some things. Might be preaching to the choir here, but figured it should be said anyway.). Right now, I have several options for where this post could branch off (part of why this has taken me so long to write), but I’ve finally settled on one. Here’s a number for you:

15,000,000,000,000,000,000

Look at that number. Eighteen zeroes, that is. Can you even truly imagine how big that number really is? It’s almost too big to have any real meaning, because you look at it and process how many place-holding little zeroes it has and the number itself is lost. You can think, “Wow, that must be really big,” but it’s incredibly difficult to invoke a sense of just how big it is at a glance. Take a moment to close your eyes and really think about it. 1.5 billion gigabytes: that number is how many bytes we produce in a year in this glorious, terrifying age of the internet. Constant, increasing data output. Bytes upon bytes upon bytes. Have a sense of that number yet? Have you started thinking again about all the thousands of things you’ll never get to know? The books and web pages and journals and records that you’ll never even see or know about, let alone the ones you wish you could read and don’t have time for. Yet at the same time, we have access to so much that would have been impossible just a couple hundred years ago and can (have!) learned so many things. Drop in the bucket, really.

I’d like to leave you with this quote from H.P. Lovecraft, as I think it’s particularly fitting, if perhaps slightly on the mystic side.

“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

Could our wealth of information be bringing us into a shiny new future? Or perhaps Lovecraft has the right of it, and it may well be a deluge from which we must retreat or get drawn into a never-ending, never-satisfied quest for more-more-more knowledge.

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4 comments

  1. wow

    that really is an unfathomable number

    H.P. Lovecraft quote so very appropriate – incredibly fitting…to think we let you read him when you were probably way too young to comprehend such concepts…right, “let” as if you didn’t hunt the books down on your own one way or the other! =)

    1. While I do think I have a slightly better handle on Lovecraft now than I did then, I think high school is a pretty good age for being introduced to Lovecraftian concepts. Some weird, kind of horrifying stories and philosophies are good for developing minds. =D

  2. Every time I walk into a bookstore. Every time. Your post reminded me of this article on NPR, where the athor argues that, in a way, it’s comforting to know how much information we will never touch – if there was a finite number of books or an achievable end to our knowledge, that would actually be discouraging. http://www.npr.org/blogs/monkeysee/2011/04/21/135508305/the-sad-beautiful-fact-that-were-all-going-to-miss-almost-everything

    Although that doesn’t always help me when I walk into a bookstore and am overwhelmed by the fact that I want to read approximately everything in it.

    1. Holly, thank you for sharing that NPR article! It’s the perfect antidote to an essay I was reading in a book earlier – the author said that having so much information available, especially digitally, was contributing to a listless, uncertain society. The line of thinking that just because you can never know everything on a subject, you are therefore uncertain about the subject really got to me, but I couldn’t explain why. I like this much better. In art, in academia, in pop culture, in everything – where would we be if we weren’t producing all of this? Even if it is also kind of sad. Resisting the urge to go into a bookstore now…

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