The New Information Controllers: Information Overload from Gutenburg to Zuckerberg

An op-ed style piece written for U Chicago's "Censorship & Information Control" seminar with Cory Doctorow & Ada Palmer.

I became interested in information overload becuase my head hurt. Three months learning Python from scratch on a hyper-connected campus can be a little taxing on the old noggin'. I thought I'd try a change of pace, so come the holiday break I went off to Colorado for a meditation retreat.

I've discussed the benefits of that serendipitous "smartphone detox" elsewhere. And many of the 30 or so folks who have since taken First Week Flip Phone, the 7-day challenge inspired by that experience, become aware that their status quo has become information overload, and if you head to the Stories pages on the website you'll hear stories of people deleting social media apps after this experience (e.g. for video: D.Long, Natalie).

Amount (weight)

The average American receives around 100 Push Notifications per day, and companies like Publist are being backed with 7-figure sums on the promise of simplifying the information which workers are faced with: they estimate the average company is drawing information from 16 different apps.

At first glance, it would seem that this volume of information is the cause of the information overload.

However, Professor Ada Palmer, a historian who seems to spend as much time dreaming up what the next 5 centuries will look like in her sci-fi novels as she does leading thought on radical ideas in the Rennaisance, convinced me that with a historical perspective, this explanation is too simplistic. It was as early as the 15th Century, when Gutenberg's lowered printing prices to such a level that there were simply too many books for any given person to read them all.

Yet it seems somehow ridiculous now to say that these early scholars were experiencing "information overload" in the same way that modern Americans do.

Speed (velocity)

But perhaps there is something more exceptional about the speed with which ideas can now be transmitted? David Copeland explained that 19th Century news culture ran a couple of months behind events, giving pundits ample time to mull over the latest story - in this case the Sun newspaper of New York City's reports of life on the Moon.

Thanks to Prof. David Copeland, for this extract from a rival to the Sun, who embellished the story.

This stands in contrast to modern day news, which gained ubiquity first temporally since the advent of 24h cable in the 1980s, and then geographically since this decade saw the smartphone rise to near ubiquity; in fact my research shows that in 2018 the number of Americans who are 'smartphone dependent' i.e. primarily access the internet on a 3 by 5 inch screen, now outnumbers the number of Americans without a smartphone.

Given that Momentum = Mass x Velocity, it would seem that the greater scale and speed of modern information should naturally lead to a greater momentum of information which might explain this overload.


Clay Shirky disagrees. He argues that the problem lies not with the rate of information but rather with the recipient's failure to filter the information in an effective manner.

I think there is some truth in that. Good programmers abstract away complexity; to use an example from Python, we don't need to understand how to code hash tables to .add() an item to a dictionary. Similarly for consumers, as more ads appear, we can filter them out with better Ad Blockers like AdBlock Plus and as we are required to remember more complex passwords, we can rest our brain by using a Password Manager like LastPass.

The reality is that most people don't take the time to personally curate their information filters. Rather than use custom Gmail filters to consciously prioritise their e-mail, most peole (myself included) trust Google's algorithmic sorting of information into Primary & the other categories.

Similarly, most Facebook users (managed to escape that camp) delegate the filtering of the massive amounts of incoming information to the Facebook's personalised algorithm.

'Most Recent': how-to revert to the Original News Feed

The New Information Controllers

Historically, information control has been a practise of restriction enacted by the state, like the Inquisition censors Hannah Marcus studies who restrict access to scientific information to a licensed few.

As Joshua Craze's work on military redaction and Glenn Tiffert's work on Chinese academic censorship show, states are still important agents of information control. But increasingly, it is private companies who control information flows. Previously, the companies had an incentive for information scarcity: record labels can charge a higher price if supply of the product is reduced, and thus a licensing model works for them.

However, Cory Doctorow, the internet wunderkid and cyberpunk maverick who cooked up this class with Ada at a sci-fi writer's convention, proclaims in his magnificent "Information Doesn't Want to be Free", that we live in an age of post-scarcity economics. It is virtually free to reproduce music and video. So the situation now is abundance and competition, as anyone who's tried to get noticed creating new music or video in the internet age knows. Companies will pay good sums to reach the right audience to beat their competition.

So in order to cope with information overload due to technological change, consumers delegate information filtering duties to Big Tech, who have an incentive to serve them advertiser content, thus increasing their feeling of information overload.

What to do about this Catch-22? If only George Orwell were still around: he'd probably know. Or then again maybe he'd be busy snapping dope 'grams.

-Laurence Warner

About the Seminar

Censorship, Information Control & Revolutions in Information Technology from the Printing Press to the Internet

"Exploring how new information technologies from the printing press to the digital age have stimulated new forms of censorship and information control, this class seeks to bring together scholars of the print revolution with experts and practitioners from our digital age, to learn what pre-modern cases can tell us about the wave of changes in censorship & information control practices happening in our world today." - from the project's website.

Go there to discover more, engage and perhaps even be inspired to financially back this class. For a humanities class at an old-fashioned instutition, I believe it is bravely modern in its embrace of public engagement and interdisciplinary methods.

Edit: Feb 11th 2023 - removed outdated links carried over from WordPress

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