Complaining about information overload in the time of Ecclesiastes
We’ve been talking about information overload for a long time — the Gutenberg era was characterized by a panic over all the damned books all over the place, but even Ecclesiastes is worried about infoglut:
Complaints about information overload, usually couched in terms of the overabundance of books, have a long history — reaching back to Ecclesiastes 12:12 (“of making books there is no end,” probably from the 4th or 3d century BC). The ancient moralist Seneca complained that “the abundance of books is distraction” in the 1st century AD, and there have been other info-booms from time to time — the building of the Library of Alexandria in the 3d century BC, or the development of newspapers starting in the 18th century.
But what happened in the Renaissance was, like digital technology in our own time, transformative. It took overload to an entirely new order of magnitude. Up to this point, every existing book had been copied by hand — a task that could easily take one copyist a year or more. Books were expensive commodities, most often produced on commission and paid for in advance. The great medieval libraries accumulated manuscripts by the hundreds, but few people ever had access to that many books.
The printing press changed that. First developed around 1453, the new technology invented by Gutenberg had moved beyond the experimental phase by 1480 and spread to some two dozen major urban centers, with many other short-lived presses in operation. Contemporaries at first raved about the great speed with which books could be printed, and also about the drop in price — by 80 percent on one contemporary’s estimate in 1468.
(Image: Engraving of printer using the early Gutenberg letter press during the 15th century, Wikimedia Commons)