Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach

Lost In A Sea Of Information

The race for the next generation of memory chips is in full force, and American producers are eating the dust of their Japanese rivals.

Since the invention of the transistor, the building block of the microchip, the United States were in the lead of the industry. But in the ’80s the Japanese newcomers beat the undisputed champion to market.

Intel took such a pounding, it gave up on memory chips and began producing microprocessors. But not before finding out how the Japanese got so good.

Andrew Grove, then the boss of Intel, believed the secret to their success was the open office. 

But rather than remove cubicles and knock down walls, Andrew adopts a new technology: email.

He was sure email would cement Intel’s success in the processor market. 

And it did. Email saved the day.

But today, email feels less like a hero and more like a pest.

We dread opening our bursting inbox. 

And it’s not just email. It’s also phone alerts, slack messages, and infinite scrolling on social media—there’s always something calling for our attention.

And it’s too much to take in.

But this is not the first time we’ve been caught by a torrent of information.

Let’s go back to the 15th century, right before the advent of the printing press.

If you wanted to buy a book, you couldn’t pop into Barnes & Noble. You had to find the original and then pay a scribe to copy it by hand. 

One year later, and a modern car’s worth of money lighter, you finally got your book.

Thanks to the cost and effort of producing books, the quantities were low and the quality high.

A university library rarely housed more than 1.000 books. Few enough to finish within a lifetime. Giving you the idea you could consume all the knowledge of the world.

But by 1500 there are over a thousand printing presses cranking out books across Europe.

Prices of books plummet and a swarm of books floods the market.

Scholars are outraged.

Because how could you possibly read all the books ever written?

Put simply, the printing press forced people to miss out on knowledge. But what books do you skip?

At the time, there was no way to navigate the content of a book. Books were simply a collection of pages held together by its cover.

The table of contents, an index, even page numbers—when scribes copied books using their own handwriting, page numbers didn’t make sense—had to be invented. 

But these tools alone weren’t enough, because they depend on opening the book.

People craved a tool that told them which books they might like.

In comes the catalogue, the book review and the encyclopedia.

Navigational tools that are obvious to you now, but where cutting edge technology then. And they weren’t without controversy.

For example, some writers refused to have an index. They felt jumping to particular passages would both hurt the appreciation of the work and the reader’s understanding. 

A similar fear we had with Google. Just look at Nicolas Carr’s famous article, “Is Google Making Us Stoopid?” (Which didn’t mention a single study on how technology affects the mind.)

The stream of books in the Renaissance and the deluge of information of today may not be so different.

Sure, books don’t beep and buzz for your attention. But both books and modern media prey on our desire to know and understand the world.

So until we get the tools to navigate today’s tsunami of information, we want to be more careful about the channels we let flow into our lives.

By Jeroen Elsing
Ex-lawyer turned relationship coach