The Enormous Mass of Facts
I read this today in George W.S. Trow's book, “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998,” which was published in 1999:
The man of today is a citizen of the world. He seems to be ubiquitous. It is as though he had a thousand eyes and ears and, alas, only one mind. Thought has two conditions. First, knowledge as food and stimulus, second, time for distributing and digesting that knowledge. But the first is so superabundantly fulfilled that it completely obliterates the second. Knowledge comes pouring in from all quarters so rapidly that the man can hardly receive, much less arrange and think out, the enormous mass of facts daily accumulating upon him.
Yeah yeah yeah, you say. We know all that already. Move on already.
Except that's not Trow writing in 1999. That's John A. French writing in Continental Monthly in March 1864.
Here's part of the rest of his paragraph:
The boasted age of printing presses and newspapers, of penny magazines and penny encyclopedias is not necessarily the age of thought. There is a worldwide difference between knowledge and wisdom. The one consists of facts as they are, the other of facts as they may be. The one sees events, the other relations.
1864. Not only before the internet, but before television, radio, movies, the automobile. Before James Joyce. Hell, it was written, or at least published, a mere 20 years after the first telegraph message was sent in the U.S. That message: “What hath God wrought?” But even then, even in 1864, the complaint was that we had too much information besotting our brains. We had too many facts and too little wisdom.
You can take this two ways:
- Each age speeds things up enough so that the rush of information will feel overwhelming to any mind developed during the slower times of 20, 40, 60 years previous.
- We're fucked.