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Early Modern

Information Overload

Daniel Rosenberg

As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will


grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it
will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the
direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to
search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it
hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.
—Denis Diderot, “Encyclopédie” (1755)

The idea of “information overload” is deceptively familiar. Even if it were


not for the crescendo of contemporary voices announcing this problem, there
are few of us in academia who could not have supplied the concept on our own,
that is, if we were able to find the time between keeping up with the latest
scholarship in our field and ourselves producing it. But, as it happens, the work
has already been done for us. The notion of information overload appears ev-
erywhere in our popular media as a characterization of something specific to
and emblematic of our era, of life in a time of cell phones and web browsers
and fax machines and innumerable other “information appliances.” Recently, a
new term, “information fatigue syndrome,” was even coined to name a related
psychological malady.1
This is not to say that “information overload” has a purely negative conno-
tation. It is the other half of a desire for immediate and total information ac-
cess, and in discussions of contemporary culture, it is at least as common to
hear expressions of ecstasy as of unease associated with the rush and flow of
information. The unsteady balance between desire and anxiety in this realm so
1
The ubiquity of the idea may be measured by the number of self-help manuals now appear-
ing on the subject and by the number of corporate studies aimed at solving the problem. See the
studies collected (since 1994) by the news organization Reuters, including Dying for Informa-
tion and Glued to the Screen: An Investigation into Information Addiction Worldwide.
1
Copyright 2003 by Journal of the History of Ideas, Inc.

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2 Daniel Rosenberg

much defines our self-understanding today that it is hard to remember that it


has a history that stretches back to Vannevar Bush and the 1950s, much less to
Samuel Johnson and the 1750s or to Conrad Gesner and the 1550s. From the
point of view of our current “information age,” it is strange to confront the
urgency of these sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century projects to
contain and to comprehend exploding worlds of knowledge. Equally strange is
the persistence of the rhetoric of novelty that accompanies so old a phenom-
enon.2
During the early modern period, and especially during the years 1550-1750,
Europe experienced a kind of “information explosion.” I emphasize the word
“experience” as this is an essential element to the arguments presented here.
There is ample evidence to demonstrate that during this period, the production,
circulation, and dissemination of scientific and scholarly texts accelerated tre-
mendously. In her essay, Ann Blair notes that over the course of this period, a
typical scholarly library might have grown by a factor of fifty, while Brian
Ogilvie demonstrates an equivalent acceleration in the production and con-
sumption of texts in the domain of natural history; and there is a large literature
to back both of these arguments up. But the fact of accelerated textual produc-
tion and consumption is not what is principally at issue here. What is essential
is the sense that such a phenomenon was taking place and the variety of re-
sponses to it.
In many ways Ann Blair’s argument provides the groundwork for the three
others that follow. She examines the varieties of textual practices “deployed by
early modern scholars” in response to a perceived “overabundance of books”
during the period between 1550 and 1700, and she argues that historians have
paid disproportionate attention to what she calls “literary reading” and not
enough to other modes of encountering and engaging textual materials ranging
from browsing and skimming to buying and collecting to annotating, cutting
and pasting, and dog-earing. For Blair these other modes of acting upon texts
are important in all historical moments, but in situations where readers feel
themselves overwhelmed by information, they become all that much more cru-
cial and telling.
Blair argues that among learned readers in particular the sixteenth and sev-
enteenth centuries were just such a time. According to her argument, an explo-
sion of book production during the early modern period led to the development
of a broad discourse on modes of textual practice. In some instances the prob-
lem of “information overload” led to a new emphasis on readerly “diligence”
as in the cases of the theologians Francesco Sacchini and Johann Heinrich
Alsted. In other instances, the same problem led to new theories and practices
2
See Armand Mattelart, The Invention of Communication, trans. Susan Emanuel (Minne-
apolis, 1996) and Friedrich Kittler, Discourse Networks, 1800/1900, trans. Michael Metteer
with Chris Cullens (Stanford, 1990).

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Early Modern Information Overload 3

of consultative and instrumental reading such as those of Francis Bacon or


Samuel Johnson. Indeed even if the ascetic principles of the theologians con-
trast with the rather more epicurean perspective of the essayists and encyclope-
dists, from a generic point of view all of these texts sound equally like self-help
manuals for overwhelmed readers. How different, after all, is the advice of
Sacchini, to learn a few things “well” rather than a lot “superficially,” from
Bacon’s taxonomy of “books to be tasted,” “books to be swallowed,” and some
few “to be chewed and digested”? Blair resists a teleological reading of these
developments (from “intensive” to “extensive”) and instead proposes under-
standing opposed positions as reactions to a common problem.
Brian Ogilvie traces changes in the representation of information about the
botanical world during the early modern period, arguing that during the six-
teenth and seventeenth centuries, botanical scholars progressively rejected scho-
lastic methods in favor of an empirical “science of describing.” For him, the
key changes take place between 1550 and 1620, a period during which scholars
unloosed a “flood” of botanical information in “dozens of specialist publica-
tions containing hundreds of new plant descriptions.” By a paradoxical twist,
this shift toward empirical study and data collection produced a new problem,
that of comprehending and managing the swelling sea of scientific information
itself. “By the 1580s,” Ogilvie writes, “the botanical tyro had to master a tre-
mendous number of words, things, and authorities.” And during this period
botanical literature increasingly sought to address precisely this concern. Al-
ready in the 1550s, with the work of Conrad Gesner and Remert Dodoens,
Ogilvie observes a shift from an older form of botanical treatise, descended
from the alphabetical materia medica, to a new form organized around “tacit
notions of similarity” among different natural types. Not that all of these devel-
opments were useful. As Ogilvie notes, the move toward similarity was not a
direct move toward scientific taxonomy, and in different works vastly different
categorical schemes applied, so that the same plant might be grouped with
“shrubs” in one and, in another, with “plants whose flowers please.” Eventu-
ally, with Caspar Bauhin at the end of the sixteenth century and John Ray at the
end of the seventeenth, Ogilvie notes the rise of a new class of scientific litera-
ture aimed not only at describing and organizing natural facts but at doing the
same work for scientific texts themselves.
Like Ogilvie, Jonathan Sheehan focuses on the organization of knowledge
about the natural world. But Sheehan’s objects of interest are different from
those taken up in the preceding article. Sheehan writes about the development
of the “Biblical encyclopedia,” a hybrid theological-scientific genre, including
such works as Heinrich Alsted’s Triumph of Sacred Books (1625), Samuel
Bochart’s Hierozoicon (1663), and Johann Jakob Scheuchzer’s Physica Sacra
(1735). Sheehan argues that by systematically identifying empirical scientific
facts with passages in Scripture, these encyclopedias transform the Bible itself

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4 Daniel Rosenberg

into a mechanism for organizing and controlling a proliferation of information


about the natural world. For example, in Bochart’s Hierozoicon, Biblical ex-
egesis gives occasion for a (somewhat delirious) account of the variety of ani-
mals in the world and of their heterogeneous appearances in Scripture (the
three species of camels, camels in Judea, camels as carriers of luggage, camels
whose hair is used for making cloth, and so forth), and in Scheuchzer’s Physica
sacra, the reader is presented with an equally surprising account of engineer-
ing principles told through a hypothetical reconstruction of the Tower of Ba-
bel. For Sheehan the development of the genre of the Biblical encyclopedia is
symptomatic of a general shift in epistemological perspective during the early
modern period that extends far beyond questions of theology itself. He argues
that while Biblical encyclopedism actively sought to reassert the primacy of
Scriptural knowledge to European culture and science, it represented at the
same time “a near desperation at keeping the world of knowledge under wraps.”
In this respect the Biblical encyclopedia served many of the same functions as
the scientific and philological literatures of the period discussed by the other
historians represented here. In the Biblical encyclopedia, Sheehan writes, “The
Bible became as arbitrary a system of organization as the alphabet itself.”
But as Richard Yeo argues, none of these early modern efforts at “coping”
with information overload was fully successful. By the eighteenth century, ob-
servers complained that books, journals, and other sources of information had
“grown too numerous not only to procure and read, but to see, to learn the
names of, or even to number.” As the proliferation of scholarship discussed
above already suggests, whether in natural philosophy, theology, or any other
arena of general learning, projects aimed at managing an exploding “multitude
of books and new kinds of information,” tended to produce above all more
books, even when these books promoted themselves as solutions to the prob-
lem. Indeed by the early eighteenth century, writers such as Jonathan Swift
would parody the proliferation new books written as nothing more than guides
to old ones and would warn against the multiplying dangers of second- and
third-hand information. The problems involved were understood to be so ex-
treme that by the later eighteenth century, what Richard Yeo has termed “radi-
cal culling scenarios” were in some instances evolving into radical destruction
scenarios. In the 1760s, for example, the French writer Louis-Sebastien Mercier
envisioned a utopia in which all relevant learning had been condensed into four
volumes and all useless books had been eliminated.3
Yeo himself is principally interested in Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia
(1728), one of the most ambitious early modern attempts to address what Cham-
bers understood to be an “uncontrollable multiplication” of books and infor-
mation across all fields of learning. The Cyclopaedia was a kind of “ready-

3
See Daniel Rosenberg, “Mercier’s New Words,” Eighteenth-Century Studies (forthcom-
ing).

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Early Modern Information Overload 5

made commonplace book,” an alphabetical compendium of general knowledge


culled from the best books available on many subjects, and as Chambers readily
acknowledged, a representation of the writing of many other scholars. But
Chambers defended the originality of his project with great vehemence. This
defense rested partly on epistemological and partly on legal grounds. Unlike
the earlier writers discussed here, Chambers had to negotiate the new problem
of copyrights. For earlier writers it appeared both natural and necessary to re-
capitulate, to excerpt, and to copy their sources. (Indeed, this practice per-
sisted. Sheehan notes that the epistemological energy of Scheuchzer’s Physica
sacra is in part generated by the tension between texts drawn from Scripture
and images or text pirated directly from contemporary natural histories.) But
under the terms of developing copyright law in the 1720s this was no longer
quite so straightforward a proposition. Chambers was put in the difficult posi-
tion of defending his own acts of borrowing as legitimate while limiting as
much as possible similar borrowing from his own work. From both a legal and
an epistemological point of view, Chambers stressed the novelty of his selec-
tion and organization of previously published materials, and he argued that the
Cyclopaedia gathered diverse materials and reorganized them in a format that
had all the advantages and all of the authorial originality of “a continued dis-
course.” The product, he claimed without a shred of irony, would be “the Best
Book in the Universe.”
Chambers’s Cyclopedia makes a particularly fitting conclusion to this suite
of studies because it represents both the generalization and the commercializa-
tion of the problems laid out in the earlier scenarios. By the time of the
Cyclopaedia in the 1720s, the indexical operation pioneered by writers such as
Gesner has moved from a secondary to a primary epistemological concern. The
old encyclopedia of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance based its prestige on
its claim to comprehensiveness. But by the middle of the sixteenth century,
these claims had become very difficult for any single author or work to sup-
port. Ironically, as the plausibility of the old claims weakened, demand for the
genre intensified. This is attested to by the great commercial success of the
Cyclopaedia and by the still greater success of the renowned Encyclopédie of
Diderot and d’Alembert. For the latter, just as for Chambers, the indexical
format of the encyclopedic dictionary speaks to an epistemological urgency. In
a world of rapid change, quick access to knowledge becomes as important as
knowledge itself.4 During the early modern period, the encyclopedia survived
by adaptation. If the Medieval encyclopedia aimed to reflect the universe it-
self, more and more, the early modern encyclopedia aimed to reflect the possi-
bilities of knowing a changing universe of representation. By the time of Cham-

4
See Daniel Rosenberg, “An Eighteenth-Century Time Machine: The Encyclopedia of
Diderot,” in Daniel Gordon (ed.), Postmodernism and the Enlightenment: New Perspectives in
Eighteenth-Century French Intellectual History (New York, 2001).

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6 Daniel Rosenberg

bers, the law of copyright itself came to legitimize the act of ordering second-
degree representations as itself a kind of originality.
Despite the rhetoric deployed by Diderot or Chambers or anyone else, how-
ever, the sense of urgency represented by the eighteenth-century encyclopedia
does not appear all of a sudden. As the three earlier papers show, already in the
sixteenth century, early modern readers evinced a rapt concern over informa-
tion management evidenced in a proliferation of different kinds of instrumen-
tal reading practices. As Blair demonstrates, these activities were not limited to
the use of printed indexes and guides nor to simple “home rubrication jobs.” In
several remarkable instances, she has turned up manuscript evidence of read-
ers creating indexes to indexes and editors advertising editions that were “new”
only by virtue of new indexes added to the main text. Perhaps most emblematic
of this remarkable in-turning of taxonomical concern is the “gigantic attempt
to index all known books,” commenced by Conrad Gesner in the middle of the
sixteenth century.
If all of this begins to sound a little bit like Borges, it is no accident, and, in
fact I think that Borges would make a fine friend to these historians. His read-
ers will remember that the kernel of the ideas for the “Library of Babel” and the
“Chinese Encyclopedia” came not from a moment of science-fiction daydream-
ing but from a historical essay on the seventeenth-century language theorist
and polymath, John Wilkins.5 As Borges demonstrated repeatedly, there is some-
thing uncannily contemporary about this arena of early modern inquiry, and
something stubbornly historical about our most forward-looking epistemologi-
cal anxieties and dreams.
What, then, is the history of “information overload”? Is it a history that can
be written? The four papers presented here provide complex answers to these
questions. On the one hand, there are fundamental resonances among all of
these accounts. And it is possible to imagine unifying them into a continuous
argument. Taken together, these papers suggest that during the sixteenth and
seventeenth centuries factors such as an increasing production and dissemina-
tion of books, developing networks of scientific communication, discoveries
and innovations in the sciences, and new economic relationships all conspired
to produce such quantities of new information that a substantial reorganization
of the intellectual world was required. All four papers posit an actual quantita-
tive increase in the amount of information being produced and circulated in the
early modern period, and all narrate a reflexive turn in scientific and theologi-
cal thought. As Ogilvie notes, by the end of the seventeenth century, it was
widely understood that “representing and ordering the world” would be “im-
possible unless the representations themselves were put in order.”

5
Jorge Luis Borges, “The Analytical Language of John Wilkins,” in Other Inquisitions,
1937-1952, tr. Ruth L. C. Simms (Austin, 1965).

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Early Modern Information Overload 7

On the other hand there are real differences among these accounts that
should not be too quickly smoothed over. In the first place, there is the problem
of defining the term “information overload” itself. In the four articles here
“information overload” has importantly different valences. For Blair and Yeo it
refers principally to an “explosion of books”; for Ogilvie and Sheehan, it refers
to a “flood” of descriptive facts. In the first case the problem is how to manage
what Leibniz called a “horrible mass of books”; in the second “innumerable
species” of things and ideas. As each of the historians demonstrates, the two
problems bear importantly on one another; new observations go hand in hand
with new publications. But the two processes are not identical, nor is there any
guarantee that their relationship remains the same over time. Indeed, the notion
that an explosion of books might take place without a comparable explosion in
learning has been part and parcel of the polemic around information overload
since the early modern period. Witness Jonathan Swift’s critique of “index-
learning,” for example, or Francis Bacon’s suggestion that the world of schol-
ars be divided into separate “kindreds,” a groups of readers and a group of
researchers, in order that one activity would not come to stand in the way of the
other.6
In point of fact, there is already good evidence in these articles themselves
to suggest that “information overload” is not a single and unitary phenomenon.
In Blair’s account, it is the “abundance of books” itself that is at issue, irrespec-
tive of any new discoveries that might or might not be contained in them. For
Ogilvie, the issues are reversed, since, on the strength of their prodigious con-
tent, a mere 70 or 80 relevant texts turn out to produce a condition of overload
in the field of natural history. In the case of Sheehan what really seems to be at
issue is not a multiplication of books or facts per se, but rather, a multiplication
of authorities that demands an epistemologically convincing response from a
defensive theological establishment. In the case of Yeo the issue is the emer-
gence of a market in encyclopedias driven by a rhetoric of overload that may
accelerate according to its own symbolic and economic principles. In concep-
tualizing the long history of information, accounting for these differences will
be at least as significant as accounting for commonalities in these narratives.
It is worth noting the terminological anachronism deployed by this group
of historians in the application of the rubric of “information overload” to the
early modern period. The word “information” itself appears little if at all in the
sources to which these historians refer. Indeed, the use of “information” to
mean something abstract and quantifiable (rather than particular knowledge)
does not appear until the early twentieth century, and the usage “information
overload” is even later. But as these articles clearly show, the notion that vari-
ous kinds of knowledge objects (“words, things, and authorities” in Ogilvie’s
6
See William R. Paulson, The Noise of Culture: Literary Texts in a World of Information
(Ithaca, N.Y., 1988), 9.

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8 Daniel Rosenberg

phrase) might proliferate out of control is far from new, a fact that the neological
usage of “information” tends to obscure.
Depending on context, where the historians here use “information,” the
early modern literature nearly always uses combinations of terms such as
“books,” “ideas,” “knowledge,” “species,” “things,” or, as in the quotation at
the beginning of this introduction, “truth” itself.7 The diversity of these terms
points to both a potential difficulty and a potential benefit of the group of analyses
launched here. In some cases, as for example, with Blair and Yeo, it may be
possible to unify lines of argument. In others, such those of Ogilvie and Sheehan,
this may be much more difficult. On the other hand the employment of the
rubric makes it possible to observe the real diversity of phenomena that co-
operate in the production of a cultural idea. As Geoffrey Nunberg has argued,
even in modern usage, “information” identifies a heterogeneous realm of cul-
tural processes. The category is useful precisely because “it fuzzes the bound-
aries between several genetically distinct categories of experience.” As he ar-
gues, “the question we want to ask is phenomenological rather than lexico-
graphical: not, What does ‘information’ mean? But rather, How is the impres-
sion of ‘information’ constituted out of certain practices of reading and the
particular representations that support them?”8 The use of the rubric of infor-
mation in these essays makes visible diversities and incoherences within this
idea even as it illustrates the various lines of connection between what appears
to be early- and what appears to be post-modern.
Another area of promise and difficulty in these essays is that of chronol-
ogy, and here, as with the usage of terms, the historians are not in complete
agreement. For Ogilvie the key changes that lead to the condition of “informa-
tion overload” take place between 1550 and 1620; for Sheehan, between 1625
and 1735; for Yeo only at the end of this period; and for Blair, who casts a
glance back to the thirteenth century, perhaps much earlier. Maybe this is one
continuous story, a slow explosion that was experienced over the course of
centuries. But if this is the case, it has been a slow information explosion in-
deed, and we will need to be able to tell a story that accounts not only for
Conrad Gesner, Francis Bacon, and Ephraim Chambers but also for modern
cultural commentators, scientists, and social scientists such as Henry Adams
and Vannevar Bush and Norbert Wiener. It seems to me that by emphasizing

7
See Steven Shapin, A Social History of Truth: Civility and Science in Seventeenth-Century
England (Chicago, 1994); Peter Burke, A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to
Diderot (Cambridge, 2000), and Neil Rhodes and Jonathan Sawday (eds.), The Renaissance
Computer: Knowledge Technology in the First Age of Print (New York, 2000).
8
Geoffrey Nunberg, “Farewell to the Information Age,” in Geoffrey Nunberg (ed.), The
Future of the Book (Berkeley, 1996), 114-15; also Mark Poster, The Second Media Age (Cam-
bridge, 1995), George Landow, Hypertext 2.0: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory
and Technology (Baltimore, 1997); and N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Vir-
tual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago, 1999).

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Early Modern Information Overload 9

the differences as well as the similarities in these early modern instances of


information overload we may begin to better understand the specific historical
factors related to perceptions of “information overload.” It may be that in cer-
tain historical instances, quantitative factors such as an “overabundance of
books” are decisive. In other instances intellectual or cultural factors such as
those presented by Sheehan may be more important.
Beyond this chronological question, there are numerous tensions among
these papers that strike me as worth pursuing, for example, the contrast that
may be drawn between the argument of Ogilvie and those of Sheehan and Yeo.
Ogilvie argues that in the domain of natural philosophy the problem of infor-
mation overload occasions a turn away from the arbitrary alphabetical index-
ing systems of the Middle Ages toward more unified and internally structured
systems for organizing the universe of natural knowledge. By contrast the works
that concern Sheehan and Yeo attempt to control the explosion of knowledge
by imposing more or less self-consciously arbitrary frames upon it. If the moti-
vating problems in these different cases are similar, the epistemological strate-
gies for dealing with them appear to be quite opposed. How general an argu-
ment can be made about the role of arbitrariness in seventeenth-century and
eighteenth-century systems of representation? To what extent does the idea of
information itself rely on the emergence of these representational possibili-
ties?9
A final question: is it possible that perceptions of information overload
have less to do with the quantity of information in production or circulation at
any time than with the qualities by which knowledge is represented? If so, it
may be that the very devices created to “contain” information overload are the
devices that “create” it in the first place—for example, Blair’s indexes upon
indexes or Sheehan’s Biblical encyclopedias. If this is the case, it would go a
long way toward accounting for the difficulty we may have in establishing
precise chronologies in this domain.
At the dawn of the twenty-first century it is striking not only how far back
the history of information overload goes but how very difficult this is to con-
ceive. Nor is this an accidental feature of the phenomenon. Indeed, insofar as
“information overload” implies a binary of a normative and containable before
and an exceptional and uncontainable after, it seems to me that the concept
inevitably overwrites its own history. In order to write a broader history of
information overload, we may need to set aside our usual tool kit of causes and
effects and particularly to set aside our usual conception of continuous change
in order to ask how and why a phenomenon so patently old can periodically
and convincingly be re-experienced as a fundamental symptom of the new.

University of Oregon.
9
See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New
York, 1970); Sylvain Auroux, La Sémiotique des Encyclopédistes (Paris, 1979).

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