Overwhelmed, Feeling

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Overwhelmed, Feeling

Of all the worries that preoccupy us in the early twenty-first century, the threat of “information overload” seems the most exclusively modern. We bob along above a seething, swirling mass of digital information, reassuring ourselves with an illusion of control. But one false move and we’ll be tipped out, thrashing and gasping for air. The watery imagery—to feel “out of one’s depth,” the “digital deluge”—is not surprising: to feel overwhelmed comes from the Middle English word whelme or quhelm (to capsize). We may start by trying to get to the surface, but before long, there will be a sinking feeling—the defeated sensation that comes from surfeit (see: DISGUST).

In fact, though the technology is new, the fear of being overwhelmed by information is not. At the end of the fifteenth century, following the invention of the Gutenberg printing press, cheap books began to swamp the market. And complaints about “too much information” swiftly followed.

Before that time, one might have believed it possible to know everything there was to know. The tenth-century scholar and book trader Lubna of Cordoba worked in the great library at the Umayyad palace of Andalusia, one of the great centers of learning of the medieval Arab world. She was a highly regarded polymath: according to her contemporaries, she “excelled” in poetry and had “mastered” mathematics and science. This was not simple hyperbole. From her work copying the Islamic Hadith, and traveling to and from Baghdad’s book markets to buy copies of the ancient texts of the pre-Socratic philosophers, Lubna was thought to have most of the world’s knowledge stored in her head.

In the decades that followed the invention of the printing press, writers began to express their feeling of being unable to cope with the flood of new information. “Is there anywhere on earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” asked Erasmus. As is the case with our own information overload, readers worried about whether they could entirely rely on this published material. Important ideas, once mixed up with all the rest, would, as Erasmus put it, “lose all their goodness.” Others shared his fears. Calvin complained about “that confused forest of books,” Descartes of the BEWILDERMENT caused by what was then known as copia, an excess or richness of detail, after the Roman goddess of abundance. It left them facing a very recognizable predicament. How do you know what’s important? Should they try to train their focus on reading a canon of classics and ignore everything else? (And even then, how would you choose what to include in that canon?) Or perhaps, they should just give up reading altogether, and hope for divine inspiration to strike.

One more practical response to this early “information overload” was the invention of techniques for selecting, processing and storing ideas. Alphabetically organized reference books had existed for at least 1,500 years since Pliny created his Naturalis Historiæ, but now they became immensely popular. One of the mightiest was the Dutchman Lawrence Beyerlinck’s eight-volume Magnum Theatrum Vitae Humanæ (The Great Theater of Human Life, 1631), which ran to 10 million words. New “best-bits” genres also flourished, such as the Florilegium—which collected quotable sayings and organized them under subject headings so that time-poor speech makers or letter writers could add a learned edge to their words. Note-taking techniques were taught in universities, and filing systems for these notes (a wooden cupboard with rows of hooks from which pages could hang, organized under themes or ideas) were invented so that no one would have to read a book twice.

Today we try to navigate “information overload” with similar tools. Search engines scope out the territory, while research students are taught to break down their program of reading into SMART (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-related) goals to make things feel more manageable. Though it is easy to become discouraged, one of the effects of the threat of being overwhelmed is that we have been forced to become more adept at how we read. The image of Lubna in her library, painstakingly copying out Latin and Greek texts, is a long way from anything we can imagine for ourselves now.

We might, instead, take heart from Samuel Johnson. He seemed to have accepted quite cheerfully that the proliferation of new books required readers to move between different levels of attention. He modeled four different modes: “hard study, perusal, mere reading and curious reading.” The first required intense concentration, the last was a cursory skim done amid the chatter of a coffeehouse. It was only with this kind of pragmatic approach that Johnson could keep his feelings of overwhelm at bay—knowing, as he did, that “writers will, perhaps, be multiplied, till no readers will be found.”