The most recent episode of On the Media (If you like, you can listen to the segment from On The Media here) alerted me to this piece by Dr. Vaughan Bell in Slate. (I can hear someone out there saying: “Hah! Rothman was alerted to a piece in an online-only magazine by an old media life FM radio!” And he/she is right.)
Worries about information overload are as old as information itself, with each generation reimagining the dangerous impacts of technology on mind and brain. From a historical perspective, what strikes home is not the evolution of these social concerns, but their similarity from one century to the next, to the point where they arrive anew with little having changed except the label.
This is very entertaining stuff. Bell links to this article from the Journal of the History of Ideas by Ann Clair:
This article surveys some of the ways in which early modern scholars responded to what they perceived as an overabundance of books. In addition to owning more books and applying selective judgment as well as renewed diligence to their reading and note-taking, scholars devised shortcuts, sometimes based on medieval antecedents. These shortcuts included the use of the alphabetical index, whether printed or handmade, to read a book in parts, and the use of reference books, amanuenses, abbreviations, or the cutting and pasting from printed or manuscript sources to save time and effort in note-taking.
Other examples include Socrates warnings on the danger of writing and fantasy tales, Malesherbes complaining that newspapers “socially isolated readers,” and an 1883 article which argued that schools “exhaust the children’s brains and nervous systems with complex and multiple studies, and ruin their bodies by protracted imprisonment.”
Loved this quote from Douglas Adams that Bell mentions:
“Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”