When researching the history of information overload, it’s hard to find any accounts of it prior to modern day, especially used in a problematic sense like it is here. In fact, it doesn’t even seem to have a history really. Not even Wikipedia has a clue about it! (Seriously, go try it.) Recently however, I found an article on StevenAitchison.co.uk’s blog Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life that made a connection for me which pushed me in a new direction when researching inspiration overload.
“Inspiration overload is like information overload, but when you’re suddenly overwhelmed by outside-the-box thinking, grandiose calls-to-action, cutting-edge entrepreneurial or business philosophies and living principles.” – Dave Ursillo, from Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life
Inspiration overload is a relatively new problem that has come with this age of mass information, and as such, it’s back story seems quite ambiguous. So to find out the history of inspiration overload, we have to examine the spread of mass information; more importantly, information overload.
Dictionary.com defines information overload as, “an overwhelming feeling upon the receipt or collection of an indigestible or incomprehensible amount of information, the feeling of being faced with an amount of data that one has no hope of completely processing.” Though the term itself originated sometime in the 20th century, the idea of information overload has been around seemingly every time information technologies have been invented. Ann Blair, in a 2010 Boston Globe article, makes a good parallel between today’s information overload due to the internet and the 1440’s information overload due to the Gutenberg Press.
“The literate classes experienced exactly the kind of overload we feel today — suddenly, there were far more books than any single person could master, and no end in sight. Scholars, at first delighted with the new access to information, began to despair. ” – Ann Blair, The Boston Globe
Though the term was not yet used, many scholars and critics of the time expressed their concerns of information overload. Thousands of books were suddenly, very readily available on the market and available to common people who could never absorb the seemingly endless surge of information. Did any artists or likewise passionate people of Gutenberg’s time experience inspirational overload too? Well even if no one did, the information overload that occurred then was soon responsible for the first public libraries, universal bibliographies, and encyclopedias that were distributed more widely than ever before. It is easy to infer that this occurrence was a good deal responsible for the informational world that we now live in, and in part the creation of inspiration overload.
Following this idea that inspiration overload is a off-set spawn from information overload, it’s pertinent to clarify that information overload is not the same as sensory overload as many, including myself prior to this research, would think even though their definitions are similar. Dictionary.com defines sensory overload as, “a condition of receiving too much information or stimulation via visual or audio sources; overstimulation of one or more senses,” but it refers more to the brain’s incapability to deal with the information given by the senses themselves rather than the inability to deal with too much information already received as an abstract idea. Think of it as the difference between laughing from being tickled and laughing from being told a joke, respectively. Though all three overload states occur from being given too much information to deal with, sensory overload deals more on a fundamental level dealing with base senses rather than higher thought.
An article at Infogineering.net points out why this is such a fundamental difference and why it should be separated when discussion information overload.
“Think of the number of light sensors within the eye… Then include the thousands of touch-sensitive areas of the body, and the range of our hearing. But we can still deal with all of this, because the brain has had tens of millions of years of evolution to deal with this.
Compare those tens of millions of years to the few thousand years we’ve been dealing with information such as talking and writing. Our brains are still learning to deal with this, so we can only process a very small amount of it at a time.” – ‘Understanding Information Overload’, Infogineering.net
In short, sensory overload isn’t that big of a problem compared to information overload because our brains evolved using our senses first and in turn has had since our creation to develop, where as language and the sharing of information is still relatively new and is still developing due to the increase in the amount of information sharing that we do today. Information overload is something we as humans are still having to deal with and should be separated from sensory overload which the majority of us never have to deal with. Though the two are at the roots the same problem of not being able to handle information being presented to the brain, the separation needs to occur because of the fundamental, cognitive difference.
I bring up this separation, not simply to clarify however. I bring it up because after researching the history of inspiration overload, I’ve come to a conclusion, or more so a hypothesis.
It can be stated fairly easy that inspiration overload is just a child to information overload. That is to say, not a problem all of its own, but a sub-problem to a larger, more generic one. For this reason, the history of inspiration overload is harder to uncover because it is only experienced by a handful of a population experiencing a more generic problem we call information overload. So following logic, we can say that the true history of inspiration overload is just the history of information overload, and then we could stop there by saying that information overload stems from producing more information as a society than we can obtain as individuals, but I don’t think that it’s fair to cut it off so superficially.
As stated earlier, the literates of the late 1400’s were in the same situation as we are now informationally speaking, (if I may make up a word) but the information overload they experienced eventually settled as they found ways to deal with it as a society. Five hundred years later no one would say that the printing press was detrimental in any way and today people even complain that not enough books are being read because the newer generations undervalue them. Society as a whole, our brains, learned to deal with that extra information to the point that printed literature is now an essential to academia, entertainment, and correspondence.
Following the same trend though, sensory overload shouldn’t be separated as a different clinical problem, but instead should be considered a more basic, fundamental problem derived from the same process of dealing with information. The key here, and also my hypothesis, is that sensory overload comes before inspirational and informational overload historically speaking. Sure it still happens, but usually due to other conditions such as autism or asperger’s. But like the article at Infogineering.net says, our brain is very good at dealing with those senses because it has been for as long as we’ve had them. Prehistoric humans were probably much more susceptible to sensory overload than we are. If inspirational overload is the child to information overload, sensory overload is its great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather.
Regardless of my ending hypothesis, which is my own personal speculation, the history of inspiration overload is much more clear to see once coupled with information overload. How we continue to deal with it given this new path to research, however, is up to us. In another 600 years, will this information, and subsequently inspiration, overload be long forgotten in the wake of how we decide to deal with it? I sure hope so. What do you think?
1.Ursillo, D. (2011, Fall). Inspiration Overload and the Ever-Important Exhale [Web log post]. Retrieved from Change Your Thoughts Change Your Life: http://www.stevenaitchison.co.uk/blog/ inspiration-overload-and-the-ever-important-exhale/
3.Blair, A. (2010, November 28). Information overload, the early years [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://articles.boston.com/2010-11-28/news/29293435_1_information-overload-books-nicholas-carr
5.Understanding Information Overload. (n.d.). Retrieved November 29, 2011, from http://www.infogineering.net/understanding-information-overload.htm