Living online is changing our brains – at least according to Baroness Greenfield in an interview posted today by New Scientist.

Leaving aside questions over the extent to which Greenfield’s concerns are driven by misapprehension or plausibility, the interview put me in mind of a rather wicked quote that appeared in a presentation I saw many years ago.  Unfortunately, I have long since forgotten the source of that quote, and so ended up spending a number of hours trawling the web (and asking around on Twitter) for it this afternoon.

I’m not sure that what I found is what I was looking for.  But it has the same effect.

Here’s the quote that I did come across, with a couple of choice words redacted:

“We have reason to fear that the *********** which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.”

So when was this written, and what is missing?

Here’s a hint: the subject of the concern is information.  But is the author talking about the internet?  Or television?  Or some earlier information technology?

The quote is actually from a tome by Adrien Baillet, was written in 1685, and concerns the dangers of an overabundance of books!

The full quote is

“We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire. Unless we try to prevent this danger by separating those books which we must throw out or leave in oblivion from those which one should save and within the latter between what is useful and what is not.”

This appears in a deliciously titled paper titled “Reading Strategies for Coping With Information Overload ca.1550-1700” by Ann Blair, published in the Journal of the History of Ideas – Volume 64, Number 1 in 2003 (pp 11-28). (the quote comes from Adrien Baillet, Jugemens des sçavans sur les principaux ouvrages des auteurs (Paris, 1685), I, avertissement au lecteur, sig. avij verso; see Françoise Waquet, “Pour une éthique de la réception: les Jugemens des livres en général d’Adrien Baillet (1685),” XVIIe siècle, 159 (1988), 157-74.)

Unfortunately, the paper is behind a paywall and so not easily accessible.  But it addresses very real concerns being expressed in the 16th and 17th centuries over how the new age of information unleashed by the printing press and scholarly works might ruin society if not handled correctly, and coping mechanisms for dealing with this.

In many ways, these challenges seem to mirror at least some those experienced at every stage of technology-driven information generation.  And in fact Ann Blair’s paper concludes

The perception of an overabundance of books led to more books being used in a great variety ways. Alongside the well-established methods of thorough reading and note-taking, which engaged the personal judgment and effort of the reader, early modern scholars also relied on shortcuts to “process” books so as to retrieve items of use with less investment of time and self. In some cases personal judgment was sacrificed when readers relied on the labor of others, notably professional compilers and amanuenses. In other cases the integrity of manuscripts and printed texts (notes, letters, and printed books) was sacrificed, when passages were cut and reused to save some of the labor of copying. At the same time idiosyncratic systems of abbreviation and note storage also heightened the private nature of reading. The proliferation of inventive methods of and aids to study, whether unique to individuals or spread more widely through official or unofficial teaching, can help us understand better not only the conditions of production of early modern scholarly and pedagogical works, but also the deep roots of the ways in which we, too, cope with what we now call information overload.

Baroness Greenfield may be onto something, or may just be suffering from the distress of belonging to an outgoing generation.  Either way, it’s hard to see how we can look forward to living successfully in an information-rich society without first looking back.

Andrew Maynard