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Information Overload? There Has Always Been Too Much to Know

Is the Slow Internet movement based around an ultimately flawed idea – that it’s actually possible to shut off the massive meme-spraying firehose of the Interwebs?

The backlash against the information overload of the modern Internet era is getting stronger than ever. After years of sharing everything with everyone and breathlessly embracing the latest site du jour on the social Web, people are realizing that they can no longer keep up. Signs of this are all around us – people promising to “go off the grid” for days at a time, people removing their profiles from social networks and complaining of social media fatigue, and people scrambling to find new ways to rein in their social media promiscuity. But is this Slow Internet movement based around an ultimately flawed idea – that it’s actually possible to shut off the massive meme-spraying firehose of the Interwebs?


People who are in the Slow Internet movement, of course, don’t actually refer to this as the Slow Internet movement, much as the pioneers of the Slow Food movement never actually referred to it as the Slow Food movement until a bunch of foodies in Italy took it into their own hands when they saw a McDonald's opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome. The manifesto of the Slow Internet movement is similar to the manifesto of the Slow Food movement, but adapted for the realities of our digital age: making an effort to spend more quality time offline, re-thinking relationships on social networks, and finding ways to reduce the feeling of guilt about not checking one's streams constantly.

It’s easy to see why the Slow Internet movement has struck a chord with so many people – this Internet thing seems to be getting away from us these days. According to Mark Zuckerberg’s Law of Online Sharing, we’re on pace to share billions of pieces of content in 2012. People who have already hooked up their Spotify music accounts to Facebook have shared more than 1.5 billion pieces of information in just the last two months. Not only that, the amount of information that we share online will double every year, ad infinitum, thanks to the whole concept of "frictionless sharing." (Sound familiar? It’s Moore’s Law updated for the social networking era.)

Alexander_PopeBut let’s step back for a second. How extraordinary is this massive amount of information flooding into our lives?

One of last year’s most popular books – The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood from James Gleick (yes, that James Gleick) – documented numerous occasions in history when even the leading intellectuals of the day admitted to being overloaded by the amount of information out there. Leibniz feared a return to barbarism "to which result that horrible mass of books which keeps on growing might contribute very much." The words of Alexander Pope, responding to the veritable flood of books brought on by the printing press, are priceless: “Paper became so cheap, and printers so numerous, that a deluge of Authors covered the land.” Contemporaries wrote of drowning in a "churning flood" of information. T.S. Eliot feared that all this new information was bringing us no closer to enlightenment: "Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?"

And that’s the same story teased out by another book on information overload through the ages, Too Much to Know. As Harvard historian Ann Blair makes clear, the same issues that we’re facing today brought on by the flood of information in our lives are the same ones contemplated hundreds of years ago during the European Renaissance, long before the information era and the rapid proliferation of modern communications. Yet, as Blair points out, Renaissance scholars eventually found a way to “surf” the massive tidal wave of information that was being unlocked each day using new indexing techniques and inventing literary genres like the florilegium.

If information, indeed, wants to be free, it means that it’s destined to propagate endlessly, without limit. Think of Borges's infinite Library of Babel, where everything can be found, but nothing can be located. The world is headed toward maximum entropy, a fact that members of the Slow Internet movement seem to forget. The Joy of Quiet is not actually a joy, and it’s never actually getting any quieter. The only thing capable of taming the exponential growth of information is something else that can also grow at an exponential pace: silicon. But that opens up a whole other can of worms – at what point will man and machine become one, in our mad scramble to make sense of the sheer amount of information in our lives?

image: Stressed Young Businesswoman With Three Laptops / Shutterstock

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