I spent most of today tracking down some information about the history of information overload, so I though I’d blog it in case someone else is looking into this. Also, I may well be getting it wrong, in which case please correct me. (The following is sketchy because it’s just notes ‘n’ pointers.)
I started with Alvin Toffler’s explanation of info overload in the 1970 edition of Future Shock. He introduces the concept carefully, expressing it as the next syndrome up from sensory overload.
So, I tried to find the origins of the phrase “sensory overload.” The earliest reference I could find (after getting some help from the Twitterverse – thanks, Ed Summers! – which pointed me to a citation in the OED) was in coverage of a June, 1958 talk at a conference held at Harvard Medical School. The article in Science (vol 129, p. 222) lists some of the papers, including:
2) “Are there common factors in sensory deprivation, sensory distortion and sensory overload?” by Donald B. Lindsley.
I have not gone through Lindsley’s work to find his first use of the term, and a quick Googling didn’t give me an easy answer to this question.
The concept of sensory overload, as opposed to the term, goes back a ways. Lots of people point to Georg Simmel’s The Metropolis and Mental Life , which he wrote in 1903, although it didn’t have its major effect until a translation was published in English in 1950. That article looks at (“speculates about” actually seems like a more apt phrase) how the sensory over-stimulation common in cities will affect the mental state of the inhabitants. Simmel claims that it makes urban dwellers more reserved, more blase, and more intellect-centered. The over-stimulation Simmel refers to, by the way, is not actually an increase in sensation but an increase in the changes in sensations: a constant roar does not over stimulate us as much as constant changes in noise. (Note that Charles Babbage in his dotage was driven close to insane by the sound of street musicians outside his London apartment.)
The term “sensory overload” seems to have started entering common parlance in the mid to late 1960s. An article in The Nation in 1966 introduces the phrase as if were unfamiliar to readers: “Recent experimentation, however, has confirmed the significance of the problem of sensory overload; that is, of an inability to absorb more than a certain amount of experience in a given time.” [Robert Theobald, "Should Men Compete with Machines", The Nation, Vol 202, No. 19, 4/19/1966] In 1968, in testimony to a Senate panel on drug experience, a witness used the term and again had to explain what it means [semi-link]. So, we can put the phrase’s rise into ordinary usage right at the beginning of the popular career of psychedelic drugs.
Toffler explains information overload as being just like sensory overload, except it results from too much information. Here he clearly seems to be thinking about information in its ordinary sense: facts, figures, ideas, etc. Yet he explains it by using terms from information science, which thinks about information not as facts and ideas but as strings of bits: info overload occurs when the info exceeds our “channel capacity,” Toffler says.
At this point, info overload was thought of as a type of psychological syndrome affecting our ability to make rational choices. Toffler even warns that our sanity hinges on avoiding it.
In 1974, papers emerged applying this to marketing. Suppose consumers were given too much information about products? Research showed they would be unable to decide among them, or might make irrational decisions. From today’s perspective, the amount of information that constituted overload seems ludicrously low. In one experiment, consumers were given 16 fields of information for products. (See Jacoby, Jacob. “Perspectives on Information Overload.” The Journal of Consumer Research, March 1984, p. 432-435. p. 432) And one suspects that marketers were happy to find a rationalization for keeping consumers less well informed.
But, what’s most interesting to me is how information overload has gone from a psychological syndrome to a mere description of our environment. Few of us worry that we’re going to become gibbering idiots because we’ve been overstimulated with information. When we worry about info overload these days, it’s because we’re afraid we won’t be able to get enough of it.