Welcome to the world of information glut and gluttony

Sat, Mar 19, 2011, 00:00

IN 1621 THE English scholar Robert Burton wrote of the glut of information reaching him daily. “Shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights; peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms . . . New books every day . . . Tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays . . .” And on he went, marvelling at the “new news every day”. Burton also amassed one of the world’s largest private libraries at the time, with 1,700 books.

At a conservative guess the Irish Timesbooks desk bests his collection about once every six months.

You can read Burton’s lengthy, breathless quote in full on Google Books, which houses digital copies of 15 million books of the 130 million it aims to scan. If Burton returned today, using only a single device he could download 1,700 books in about 30 hours: a lifetime of accumulation in just over a day.

Burton is mentioned in a new book by James Gleick, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood.It took me no more than a minute or two, during a train journey, to buy and download all 544 pages – for all that matters given that it arrived weightless, searchable, to be stored in my pocket.

But, for all that efficiency, it is to be savoured, to be absorbed, because, as a book about humanity’s constant attempts to harness, process, preserve and absorb information, it jumps smoothly from reference to reference – so much so that it is as hypertextual as one-dimensional print gets.

Gleick doesn’t just refer to Wikipedia, John Banville’s The Infinities,Pokémon, ancient currencies, Charles Babbage, Alan Turing, Bill Wyman, the telegraph, the trade in web domain names, the development of taxonomy and a screw on the left rear brake pad of a German’s bicycle: he refers to them all in just a few pages.

Open his book anywhere and you will find yourself along a fascinating path of the intricate network drawn by Gleick. And everything has its place and its function. Which makes it a fine place to address the complexities of a world in which so many feel overwhelmed by information.

We volunteer for the struggle, of course. I downloaded the book having thumbed between apps, in and out of online magazines, glancing at small pieces and fragments. It was a snippet from a review of The Informationthat led me to the full review and then to the book itself. In between I cursed the low, occasionally vanishing signal on my phone with childish impatience – or, more accurately, the addict’s impatience for a hit.

Information has been plentiful for a long, long time, though – as have fears about its cheapness. In the 1960s a writer warned of the “overloading of [humanity’s] circuits” that threatened, although this was a response to previous warnings of “historical amnesia” blamed on too little reading, the escape offered by technology and its ability to become our memory.

“That hellish world, devoid of grace – has it arrived?” asks Gleick. “A world of information glut and gluttony; of bent mirrors and counterfeit texts; scurrilous blogs, anonymous bigotry, banal messaging, incessant chatter, the false driving out of the true.”

This is not the world he sees, he concludes, despite the whimpering about “information fatigue”. Yet that fatigue is there nonetheless. I certainly feel it daily, and presume that many of you do too: that exhaustion of both needing information and craving some mental quiet; the bleeping of the computer or phone, the timed interruptions of Outlook or TweetDeck; a world constantly begging you to “look at this!”; the must-reads, the must-sees, the must-catches.

In the media, you might say, we are responsible for, and subjected to, the onslaught. But we’re hardly different from anyone in the social network now. We just have bigger loudspeakers, really.

The attempts to process and order information stretch back to the early libraries, but you can see the most recent attempts to alleviate the overload in the likes of David McCandless’s innovative Information Is Beautifulgraphics; in the brevity of the internet so brutally rendered through Twitter; in how the media chisels away at stories until they emerge as panels, factoids or lists – or, in the case of i, the Independent’s smaller sibling, leave little else.

Impressively, reassuringly, Gleick’s substantial, dense book comes as close as anything of late to satiating that twin demand for knowledge and clarity. Although, to be honest, reading it on the phone or PC has been a bit of a disaster when Twitter is only ever a swipe away. It has answers, then, but not a cure.