Every so often I’ll hear someone mention in passing that we are overloaded with information compared to our ancestors. I’m sure that’s true if you measure “information” in a very specific way, but I’m not sure it’s as true as people think it is.
Augustine, the 4th century bishop, left behind over 5,000,000 words in writing.
That’s 5 million words.
Many novels have 50,000 (the range varies depending on the genre).
He left behind the equivalent of 100 novels. And he’s just one author.
For the educated elite, the ancient world was rife with information. And, by and large, the stuff they read was more important than the “information” we’re so proud of. Most of what we devote our brainpower to processing is from newspapers, magazines, and television… the knowledge equivalent of empty calories.
For all the “information” we each have at our beck and call, not many of us could muster up 5 million words.
And since our point in saying that we’re so overloaded compared to the ancients is that we’ve got so much more stuff to process than they did, maybe we shouldn’t be so smug. After all — we don’t really process the “information” that bombards us. We rush through it and promptly forget as much as possible to get ready for the next deluge.
The ancients were reading and rereading and rerereading substantive works and actually understanding them. And so Augustine was able to write 5,000,000 words that people still mull over today.
We have no idea what information overload feels like. If we canceled our newspaper subscriptions, threw away all our magazines, and replaced all that reading time with rereading a handful of solid books until we understood them thoroughly, then we’d have some inkling of what true information overload is.
And since we’ve got so many years of insights beyond Augustine to avail ourselves of, and the modern peer-reviewed system of journals to draw from, we’d be very justified in saying that we wrestle with information in a way that the ancients never did.
But not now.