Complaints about information overload are a common part of our computer-driven, cell phone-saturated, Twitter-enervated culture, but a June 7, 1941, commentary from The New Yorker reminds us that worries about this kind of thing are nothing new.
The commentary was written by Wolcott Gibbs and is being republished in “Backward Ran Sentences,” a collection of Gibbs’ best work headed to bookstores next month.
“The great paradox about this age of perfect communication, of course, is that nobody knows anything about what’s going on,” Gibbs wrote back then. “We ourselves read six newspapers every day, listen interminably to the radio, and spend a good deal of our time talking to industrious prophets who have just flown in from the warring cities and the capitals and the battle fronts. Our guess is that we know rather less about the state of the world than an ancestor of ours who lived in Connecticut and depended for his information on old copies of The Federalist delivered occasionally by a man on a horse. He got his news late and in fragments, but in the end the picture in his mind was probably clear and sensible; we hear about everything the minute it happens in staggering detail, and, generally speaking, it just adds up to balderdash.”
Gibbs’ point was that information quality is more important than information quantity. What Gibbs wrote in 1941, of course, is just as true today.