How are we managing the daily flood of information?

Information overload goes back at least to Ecclesiastes—“of making many books there is no end.” And according to historian Ann Blair, European scholars in the 1500s complained about the “confusing and harmful abundance of books.” By the late 17th century, a French observer speculated that the rapid multiplication of books would bring the world to a state “as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.” Apparently, the anxiety about the flow of information is constant, and no index at all of how much information surrounds us in any particular era.

So how much information does surround us? Authors W. Russell Neuman, Yong Jin Park, and Elliot Panek tried to find out by extending a pioneering effort of MIT media scholar Ithiel de Sola Pool (1917-1984) to measure information overload. Their results appear in the International Journal of Communication.

Pool, in the early 1980s, counted the number of words flowing into homes via many kinds of media—newspapers, TV, radio, records, telephone, direct mail, fax, and telegram—from 1960 through 1977. He measured their volume in units of quadrillions of words per medium per year nationally. To construct a more intuitively understandable measure, Neuman and his colleagues re-crunched Pool’s data and added their own through 2005, providing a measure of minutes of media content entering a household per day. To convert a count of printed words into a unit of time, they divided the number of words coming into the household in print by 240, the number of words the average adult reads in a minute. They developed estimates of average words-per-minute in various media, including television, radio, telephone, and the Internet.

They found that in 1960 there were 82 minutes of media coming into the home each day for every minute someone in the household actually consumed media. In 2005, that number had grown to 884 incoming minutes for each minute of consuming. Our information overload is nearly 11 times greater than it was 45 years ago. Shocked? No, probably not, but perhaps comforted that there is a plausible number to attach to your sense of the avalanche.

As the gap between media supply and demand widens, we consume an ever-smaller sliver of all the information available. One result is that we are becoming more reliant on digital intermediaries like search engines and social media to help us sort through it all. How much power do the likes of Google and Facebook exert over our media consumption? The authors suggest that their power is only beginning to come under “appropriate scrutiny.”

Neuman and his colleagues believe that while supply had already dwarfed demand in 1960, consumers were able to manage their media choices well enough: “It was relatively easy to find the country music station, the public broadcasting station, and the rock station on the radio dial.” What looked daunting to Pool in the early 1980s looked to Neuman, et. al., in retrospect, to be a cakewalk. But by 2005, the number of choices had become frustratingly unwieldy. As a result of such abundance, they argue, the consumption of information has shifted from “‚ÄČ‘push’ to ‘pull’ media dynamics.” That is, we no longer wait for the morning paper or the nightly news broadcast to push information upon us—we can now pull in information whenever and wherever we want.

But most of us need help deciding which information to take in and which to ignore. Blair’s scholars of the 1500s needed help, too, and they invented their own shortcuts. They developed new ways of reading, like skimming; they wrote books with indexes, chapters, and other divisions that made them more digestible; and they developed compilations—sometimes by literally cutting and pasting. No doubt, we invent shortcuts on our own, too, but we also rely more and more on Google, Facebook, and other tools to manage the information flow. The tools we use also affect which media we consume. Neuman and his co-authors urge that we need to know more about how these tools “exercise their powers of control in directing attention, cuing fashions in popular culture, and influencing public opinion and commonly held information.”

Michael Schudson and Katherine Fink are contributors to CJR.