Complaining about information overload in the time of Ecclesiastes

We've been talking about information overload for a long time -- the Gutenberg era was characterized by a panic over all the damned books all over the place, but even Ecclesiastes is worried about infoglut:
Complaints about information overload, usually couched in terms of the overabundance of books, have a long history -- reaching back to Ecclesiastes 12:12 ("of making books there is no end," probably from the 4th or 3d century BC). The ancient moralist Seneca complained that "the abundance of books is distraction" in the 1st century AD, and there have been other info-booms from time to time -- the building of the Library of Alexandria in the 3d century BC, or the development of newspapers starting in the 18th century.

But what happened in the Renaissance was, like digital technology in our own time, transformative. It took overload to an entirely new order of magnitude. Up to this point, every existing book had been copied by hand -- a task that could easily take one copyist a year or more. Books were expensive commodities, most often produced on commission and paid for in advance. The great medieval libraries accumulated manuscripts by the hundreds, but few people ever had access to that many books.

The printing press changed that. First developed around 1453, the new technology invented by Gutenberg had moved beyond the experimental phase by 1480 and spread to some two dozen major urban centers, with many other short-lived presses in operation. Contemporaries at first raved about the great speed with which books could be printed, and also about the drop in price -- by 80 percent on one contemporary's estimate in 1468.

Information overload, the early years (via Making Light)

(Image: Engraving of printer using the early Gutenberg letter press during the 15th century, Wikimedia Commons)


  1. I accept that worrying about it is nothing new. But the sheer scale – that is new.

    It might be instructive to compare the amount of information available then versus the number of people who had access to it to what is happening now.

    In the Gutenberg printing boom, let’s guess that there were 500 books published a year, and an equivalent amount of pamphlets and newsletters. Call it 1000 megabytes.
    Literacy wasn’t widespread then. We’ll further guess that about 100,000 knew how to read and could access it in all the big cities and surrounding villages. (Feel free to weigh in with actual numbers.)

    That works out to 0.001 megabytes of text a person, over one year. And it could only be refreshed by physically going and getting more,usually by paying or printing it yourself. Scarcity was diminished, but not eliminated.

    Now, the size of the internet is mindboggling:

    Even the fraction that Google’s indexed is 200 terabytes, which is 209,715,200 megabytes.

    The number of users of the internet:

    1,966,514,816 over the whole world. It comes out to:

    0.107 megabytes per person. Which is about a tenth of a book.


    But if we introduce time into the equation, then things get interesting. The internet delivers and publishes in seconds, not years, and there are no limits beyond simple human fatigue to how much more you can acquire. It’s a true post-scarcity situation.

    The real problem now is of finding, sorting and discarding irrelevant information. Know how I find the vast majority of my links and information sources? From asking on forums.

    1. And that post-scarcity situation scares the pants of most economists as their theories focuses on scarcity. And as economists run the corporations these days (alongside some MBAs with more brawn then brains) we get the *AAs and such going the legal equivalent of MAD on the net…

  2. “every existing book had been copied by hand — a task that could easily take one copyist a year or more”

    Wikipedia: “The average human being hand-writes at 31 words per minute for memorized text and 22 words per minute while copying”.

    Let’s say that the copyist has to do other tasks (mixing inks, sharpening quill pens, attending department meetings), and takes the time to do a neat job, and therefore has a slower average speed. For convenience, we’ll assume a copying rate of 12 words per minute, or one character per second.

    We’ll also assume that the copyists are unionized, and work a 40-hour week with no overtime.

    In UTF-8 text files, one character consumes 8 bits, or one byte.

    Project Gutenberg’s UTF-8 file for “The Bible, Old and New Testaments, King James Version” is 4.2 MB, or about 7-8 months to copy by hand. “The Republic” by Plato is 1.2 MB, and would take a little more than two months.

    So it’s overstating a bit to say it would take a year to copy a book, but publishing would still be tedious and expensive.

  3. To be ironic everyone posting should leave tl;dr comments on the subject (Irony for obfuscation purposes has given irony in general a bad rap, for in this case it is simply ironically acknowledging our complicitness).

    For my part, I would agree that the quantity of free information is dramatically increased.

    The way I process the majority of web text is as if it were oral communication. I see most of the text as non-institutional (and complimentarily speaking, reflective of individual differences) as well as discursive in meaning (heteroglossic). I know that what I read in a forum post is not temporally located in the present but I read it as such, and only footnote it as dated when this reading seems off, or if I am considering responding. This tendency to read internet text as orality (the specific term is “secondary orality” in some circles) is probably modifying the “information overload” framework that we are attempting to look at right now. Increasingly, I search for a comment section when reading journalistic texts as well.

    I honestly don’t think I am alone in this tendency. For starter the existence of terminology for it already exists. But also there is more oral language even in institutional texts, especially on the internet. Just as one simple example when Firefox crashes it says “my bad!”. A good research question might be “to what extent is institutional text now reflecting orality?”. My hypothesis would be “to a great extent”.

    Parts of the internet itself are institutions though. In retail internet, I expect to find links to contact pages, and if they are physical, store locator pages and store hours information.

    The article mentions scholarly information. I am a new undergraduate student at a research university, with a library in the top 10 in size in the US, but I can’t really speak to confirming or denying a problem yet. It’s too new, and frankly whatever I find to be the case here is already the native condition since this is my first university experience.

  4. The printing press changed that. First developed around 1453, the new technology invented by Gutenberg had moved beyond the experimental phase by 1480 and spread to some two dozen major urban centers,

    And 50 years after the printing press’s invention, the Renaissance started.

    Good Lord, information sucks!

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