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Jul 27

Information Overload: Then and Now

by Patrick • July 27, 2011

People Search

The Information by James GleickI’ve been reading James Gleick’s masterful new book The Information, an epic history of the information age. Gleick’s sweeping narrative covers a lot of historical ground, from the talking drums of Africa, to the telegraph, from texting to Twitter.  Gleick is a journalist who specializes in topics related to science and technology, and is perhaps best known for his bestselling debut Chaos, a popular introduction to the wonders of chaos theory (think butterfly effect – no, not the awful Ashton Kutcher movie) He’s a superb writer to be sure, and his newest book is required reading for anyone hoping to understand the world we live in.

“Information” is one of those words that we use a lot without quite understanding what it means. In one sense it can simply be defined as knowledge which can be communicated, whether through words (“Go!”),  light (green means drive!), sound (gunshot means run!)  or movement (thumbs up means good job!), just to name a few; information is encoded in DNA, it travels in the electric currents of your radio, the neurons in your brain. You could even say that it’s the very stuff the universe is made of: a drop of blood carries information about your age, ethnicity, health, ancestry. A tree trunk’s rings can encode the record of a stormy summer hundreds of years ago.

While information is as old as time, it’s pretty obvious that we are living in the most information-saturated age in history (Gleick’s book is subtitled A History, A Theory, A Flood). With such a flood of information, it’s perfectly natural to worry about overload, and I’ve written about it a few times before. As Gleick’s chapter on the telegraph amusingly makes clear, panicking about a surfeit of information is not exactly new. Many in America feared that the telegraph would mean the death of newspapers: “Anticipated at every point by the lightning wings of the Telegraph, [Newspapers] can only deal in local ‘items’ or abstract speculations [...] the infallible Telegraph will contradict their falsehoods as fast as they can publish them.” The ability for information to travel so quickly had its drawbacks, however: “Intelligence, thus hastily gathered and transmitted [...] is not so trustworthy as the news which starts later and travels slower.”Just to make it clear, that’s a journalist writing in 1845 about the telegraph, but it could just as well be a journalist writing about blogs in 2006, or Twitter in 2011.Telegraph

There were also fears about privacy during the heyday of the telegraph. “Compared to handwritten letters, folded and sealed with wax, the whole affair seemed public and insecure – the messages passing along those mysterious conduits, the electric wires,”Gleick writes. This caused people to develop acronyms, slang even entire secret alphabets to conceal the meaning of their messages, as well as to quicken the communication process:

YMIR = Your message is received.
GMLT = Give my love to…

They almost read like 19th century precursors of LOL and BRB. (An early draft of the Gettysburg Address might have read: “4 Score n 7 yrs ago LMAO”).

More and more information requires more and more ways to collect, organize and store it, and the trouble they faced back then is essentially the same we face now. One way to think of Spokeo is as a mechanism that tries to shape the bewildering array of people-related information into one place. Spokeo’s People Search engine aims to provide the most comprehensive, up-to-date information possible. If there is information out there that can help you in your searches, we know that we can help find it, And you don’t even need to learn Morse code!

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