The poetics of information overload.
Eric Hu, Drone. © Eric Hu.
There are 2.5 million stars in my pocket—stored in the SkyVoyager app, and mapped instantaneously relative to my position on the Earth’s surface. Nine hundred and forty North American bird species and their songs are included with iBird Pro Guide to Birds. I have nearly unlimited access to music; I can audio record my entire day; I can record high definition video and send it wirelessly. There are over 40,000 messages in my Gmail inbox. The world’s major newspapers are continually updated by the minute. Thanks to my mobile web browser, I have access to more words than were contained in the National Library of Ireland on June 16, 1904. On that day Leopold Bloom carried the following items in his pocket:
1 ½ pounds Denny’s sausage
Letter to Henry Flower from Martha Clifford (and later the crumpled envelope of this letter)
Card (Henry Flower)
Pocketwatch (stops before 8)
French Letter (slang for condom)
Agendath Netaim advertisement
Sweets of Sin [book]
Photo of Molly
It is an eclectic, messy, symbolically laden catalogue—leaning heavily toward food and text. Over a century later, an updated version of modernism’s iconic everyman would likely carry fewer physical sources of information. The letter, the newspaper, the card, the advertisement, the book, the photo, and the pocketwatch could all be supplanted by a four-ounce iPhone. Bloom’s money could easily be replaced with plastic (credit cards of course did not exist in 1904; we are never told whether Bloom has any identification on him). The Freeman’s Journal Bloom carries contains news of the General Slocum disaster in New York Harbor on June 15. Even in 1904, news traveled quickly. Since the introduction of the telegraph, words have moved with near instantaneity across long distances. In The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage quotes the Daily Telegraph’s claim in 1843 that “Time itself is telegraphed out of existence.” F. T. Marinetti maintains similarly in his epochal 1909 “Futurist Manifesto”: “Time and space died yesterday.”
More data has been created and stored since the turn of the millennium than in the entire history of humanity.
A century later, the statistics are nonetheless astonishing. The problem of information overload is often described as a spreading and dangerous epidemic, although much disagreement exists as to its causes and its cures. According to a recent study by the Global Information Industry Center at the University of California, San Diego, the average American “consumed” 100,000 words per day in 2008. Print accounted for only 8.61 percent of words consumed. Television accounted for 44.85 percent, while computers accounted for 26.97 percent (not including games). The same study made its biggest headlines by estimating that the average American encounters a total of 34 gigabytes of information daily. The neologism “exaflood” has recently been coined to describe conditions under which “between 2006 and 2010 the global quantity of digital data will have increased more than six-fold from 161 exabytes to 988 exabytes.” To put this in perspective,
This means that more data has been created and stored since the turn of the millennium than in the entire history of humanity. Metaphors for information overload tend to fall into two categories: those that suggest addiction or lack of self-control, such as infomania, datamania, infobesity, databesity, dataholism, infostress, dataddiction, infovorism, datadithering, data dread; and those that suggest natural disaster, such as datanami, datageddon, dataclypse, data deluge, data smog, infoglut, information saturation, data swamp, drowning in data. A selection of books published on the topic give a good sense of the life-and-death, sink-or-swim, stakes involved: The Information: A Theory, A History, a Flood; Data Smog: Surviving the Information Glut; Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age; Media Unlimited: How the Torrent of Images and Sounds Overwhelms Our Lives; The Overflowing Brain: Information Overload and the Limits of Working Memory. The preceding titles, it should be noted, are all published by reputable university or trade presses. Far more examples could be drawn from popular self-help literature, as well as from management culture (in the form of books, seminars, proprietary reports, and consulting programs). With perfect postmodern irony, information overload has even created its own self-propelled industry. The consulting firm Basex, which specializes in helping large corporations deal with the phenomenon, routinely grabs headlines in major newspapers with its claim that information overload costs the US economy $900 billion per year (the data upon which it bases this is considered proprietary and is not made public). Basex has even helpfully declared August 12 an annual “Information Overload Awareness Day.”
Science fiction did not prepare us for this—nor did avant-garde poetry, although many of the central aesthetic and political questions that regard information overload are addressed or anticipated within twentieth-century avant-garde writing. Time and space may have died over a century ago, but information has increasingly taken on a life of its own—literally, according to some, who would ascribe a kind of global noetic consciousness or mathematical sublimity to the vastness of the Internet. In his 1984 novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Samuel Delany presciently described a futuristic communication “Web” nearly a decade before Tim Berners-Lee coined the term “World Wide Web.” Delany foresaw a future in which there is radical information inequality, but in which it is also possible to travel to 6,000 worlds. His novel suggests that more words may not necessarily mean access to more worlds. For now we only have one world—and we have no choice but to come to terms with instantaneous global flows of information.
The philosopher Bernard Stiegler has recently suggested that we should rethink the pervasive effects of information technology through the lens of what he calls “psycho-power.” For Stiegler,
A number of modern and postmodern narratives coalesce in this passage: the mass media is envisioned as a predatory organism, and technocratic capitalism is seen as essentially at odds with the genuine acquisition of knowledge and experience. Technology in this model essentially holds out innumerable lures that distract us from our real desires. While there is much to be said for Stiegler’s provocations, there are also qualifications to be made. Despite reservations about some of Stiegler’s more extreme formulations, I share his concern that the increasing rapidity of capitalism’s “creative destruction” process is taking a severe toll on individual psyches, as well as exacerbating unequal patterns of information distribution globally.
In a 2010 commencement address, even the president of the United States referred to the problem. Speaking at the historically black Hampton University, Barack Obama told students that they were
The direct target of Obama’s worry may be right-wing news outlets such as Fox, but he also expresses a larger generational concern that new information technologies are regressive in their effects on the young. Other than counseling old-fashioned self-control, the president had no practical solutions to offer.
The avant-garde has always aspired to be predictive, to keep up with the present, to stay ahead of history.
Avant-garde poetry may have a small role to play in our understanding of global information flows—on the other hand, the avant-garde has always aspired to be predictive, to keep up with the present, to stay ahead of history. The avant-garde’s attempts to maintain critical distance from mainstream bourgeois values may be grandiose and hyperbolic, but the questions raised by avant-garde movements should not be dismissed as nihilistic or unrepresentative of larger social developments. To adapt a question posed by Lyn Hejinian—“Isn’t the avant-garde always pedagogical?”—I would ask: “Isn’t the avant-garde always technological?” Much of the work of the twentieth-century avant-garde was extremely self-conscious of the rapid changes in technologies of communication and data storage. From Dada photomontage to hypertext poetry, avant-garde methodology has been deeply concerned with remediation and transcoding—the movement from one technological medium or format to another. As Brian Reed has recently written, “poetry is a language-based art with a penchant for reflecting on its channels of communication.” For Reed, poetry “offers unparalleled opportunities for coming to grips with the new media ecology. Poets, as they experiment with transmediation, serially bring to light each medium’s textures, contours, and inner logic.” While poetry may seem the most non-technological of literary genres, over the past century poets have frequently been obsessed with the changing nature of information and its dissemination. The news that there is more news than we can process is not so new; while avant-garde poetry may not figure prominently in the global information glut, the global information glut figures prominently in avant-garde poetry.
I understand information overload broadly as a range of phenomena relating to the limits of cognition, perception, and memory (both personal and collective). Rather than passively observing an end of history, or drowning in information, avant-garde writers have swum within and against the currents of information flows—demonstrating not only agitation but also absorption. If one replaces the word “art” with “poetry” in the following sentence, it is possible to get an idea of what I mean with respect to poetry: “Data art reflects a contemporary worldview informed by data excess; ungraspable quantity, wide distribution, mobility, heterogeneity, flux.” Poetry “informed by data excess” has been with us at least since the emergence of modernism. Many of the key concerns surrounding information saturation were first articulated in the late nineteenth century, long before the advent of the computer or the internet. As Tim Wu has shown, the first all-powerful American “information empires” were not IBM, Microsoft, or Apple—but rather Western Union (telegraphy), the Bell System (telephony), and RCA (radio and television). Before there was a “mimeograph revolution” in the 1960s, in Mark Morrisson’s words, there was “a magazine revolution” that began in the 1890s. Morrisson succinctly identifies the conditions that brought about such a revolution: “Cheap paper, the rotary press, the Linotype machine—at the most mundane level, these inventions led to the explosion of mass market print publications and advertising at the end of the nineteenth century in Britain and America.” As early as his 1926 One-Way Street, Walter Benjamin would locate the origins of poetic modernism in Mallarmé’s reaction to unprecedented “locust swarms of print” in the 1890s. Benjamin worried that ever-cheaper means of reproduction would lead to literary writing being “pitilessly dragged out into the street by advertisements and subjected to the brutal heteronomies of economic chaos.” But he also foresaw that poets—“the first and foremost experts in writing”—would have a central role to play in the creation of a revolutionary new “picture-writing.”
Drawing on the legacy of conceptual art, recent works of conceptual writing by poets such as Goldsmith, Robert Fitterman, Vanessa Place, and Tan Lin have been consistently engaged with new media and with questions of appropriation and remediation. Goldsmith’s Day could well stand as an answer to a rhetorical question posed by Basex’s 2007 report on information overload: “What is a knowledge worker to do in a world where the Sunday edition of the New York Times has more information than the amount of information an average person alive 400 years ago might have come across in his lifetime?” While Basex hyperbolically stresses the existential threat of information overload, Goldsmith sanguinely engages it by retyping, without any semantic alteration, an entire day of the New York Times—as much information as an illiterate person in the fifteenth century might have encountered in a lifetime (at least according to Basex). Retyping the Times significantly reconfigures our sense of its context and meaning. “All the news that’s fit to print”—but from whose perspective? Fit in the sense of size? Or fit in the sense of appropriate? In book form, the September 1, 2000, edition of the New York Times late edition takes up 836 pages. Yet Day does not feel encyclopedic in the manner of Ulysses. Ulysses demands that we pay attention to the specificity of its allusions; Day does not. As readers, we cannot possibly master the mostly forgettable and/or immediately obsolete information of the national paper of record. While the management culture writing on information overload continually stresses that workers and knowledge consumers need to exert more careful control over information, Goldsmith and other conceptual writers suggest that perhaps we can only exert such control with great difficulty. As a writer, Goldsmith voluntarily gives up control over many aspects of his process. From Goldsmith’s perspective, there were few variables involved in producing Day—and little or no skill or craft was required.
Like the computer itself, the postwar notion of information overload could be said to have emerged at the complex intersection of military, corporate, and educational interests.
Although I harbor reservations about the term “information overload”—due primarily to its potential for technological determinism—I think it is here to stay, and I follow the lead both of popular usage, as well as of scholars from diverse disciplines, in adopting it to refer to phenomena related to information abundance. “Information overload” first began to appear in journals of psychology and organizational management around 1960. The term is sometimes traced to Bertram Gross’s 1964 The Managing of Organizations, but it clearly circulated in a number of contexts prior to this. The term also appears in Marshall McLuhan’s writing for the first time in the 1964 talk “Cybernetics and Human Culture”:
Here, television is considered the primary culprit and children the primary victims. McLuhan’s later writings would expand considerably upon the theme of information overload, but perhaps the greatest credit for popularizing the term should to go to Alvin Toffler’s 1970 Future Shock, which drew upon Gross’s work. Gross in turn cited Vannevar Bush’s 1945 “As We May Think” as the earliest theorization of the problem. The rise of information theory in the 1940s, accomplished by figures such as Bush, Alan Turing, Norbert Wiener, John von Neumann, Claude Shannon, and Warren Weaver, brought with it far-reaching implications. Like the computer itself, the postwar notion of information overload could be said to have emerged at the complex intersection of military, corporate, and educational interests.
The emergence of the term proper in the early 1960s can be most closely linked to the need among management theorists to achieve greater efficiency and among psychologists to assess the impact of new technologies. But beyond this, there is little consensus when it comes to the history of the larger phenomenon. Reputable scholars have variously located the origins of information overload in the library at Alexandria, in medieval scriptoria, in the printing revolution of early modern Europe, in the Enlightenment’s “reading revolution,” in the late nineteenth century’s “control revolution,” in the post-1945 development of computers, and in the post-1990s growth of the Internet. Others have argued that the problem of information overload has been greatly exaggerated—either out of elitist fear of mass culture, or out of a misunderstanding of the nature of information and its dissemination.
Jean Baudrillard maintains that “We live in a world where there is more and more information, and less and less meaning.” This is a reductive formulation. More information does not necessarily lead to less meaning (and properly speaking, Baudrillard would be better off using the term “data” rather than the term “information,” since information, at least as understood by information theory, must by definition convey meaningful data). The claim that information overload is at odds with narrative fiction could be understood as a version of the complaint that more information leads to less meaning. David Shields’s recent Reality Hunger, for instance, argues that “We’re overwhelmed right now by calamitous information. The real overwhelms the fictional, is incomparably more compelling than an invented drama.” Walter Benjamin says similarly in his 1936 “The Storyteller” that “If the art of storytelling has become rare, the dissemination of information has played a decisive role in this state of affairs. Every morning brings news from across the globe, yet we are poor in noteworthy stories.” For Benjamin and Shields, information excess is opposed to authentic experience and to our ability to impose narrative coherence upon the world. In response, both Benjamin and Shields practice collage/appropriation techniques in order to recuperate lost meaning. In so doing, they create new (and often surprisingly personal) narratives that decry information excess at the same time that they thrive upon guiding readers through that excess.
When T.S. Eliot asks in the 1934 The Rock, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?/ Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”, he is articulating a key high modernist anxiety. A surplus of data threatens access to cultural tradition as well as to reliable political information. Max Weber’s main thesis in the 1919 “Science as a Vocation”—which would go on to be the central premise of Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment—is that “The increasing intellectualization and rationalization of the world do not…indicate an increased and general knowledge of the conditions under which one lives.” The culture industry, in Adorno and Horkheimer’s terms, thrives off the overproduction of sensory data. As theorized by Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin, the masses are distracted by mass culture’s dazzling ornamentalism. They lose control over knowledge; by succumbing to mass culture they surrender their very ability to make informed political decisions.
Near the opening of his first essay collection, The Sacred Wood, Eliot writes:
Eliot’s concern with information abundance, this passage shows, was related to his theory of emotions and individual expression—the subject of his most famous essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” also included in The Sacred Wood. Eliot’s worries about the effects of “vast accumulations of…information” were widely shared by his contemporaries. Modernist poets demonstrate a keen preoccupation with guiding the tastes of the “average reader”—works such as Pound’s ABC of Reading or Louis Zukofsky’s A Test of Poetry function as primers on what and how to read. Every anthology or great books list could be said to be an attempt to contain a flood of possibilities; Pound’s attempt to condense and synthesize general culture for his readers is explicitly couched in terms of rescuing the modern autodidact from the research library. Pound is routinely apologetic about the limitations of his anthological and pedagogical projects, as, for instance, in the Guide to Kulchur: “Despite appearances I am not trying to condense the encyclopedia into 200 pages. I am at best trying to provide the average reader with a few tools for dealing with the heteroclite mass of undigested information hurled at him daily and set to entangle his feet in volumes of reference.” As he writes in the ABC of Reading, “We live in an age of science and abundance…. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.” In some sense Pound spent his entire career trying to condense his own personal mental encyclopedia for his readers—from his early writings on troubador poetry to the late Cantos, his writings (with the important exception of his imagist poems) are overloaded with historical detail. I.A. Richards famously claimed that T.S. Eliot was able to make The Waste Land “equivalent in content to an epic” through his use of allusion. Could The Cantos and The Waste Land be considered epics of sampling or of data compression? Perhaps designating them as such undervalues their contents. On the other hand, in some sense both are elaborate pastiches which thematize their own fragmentation as well their own inability to make tradition(s) “cohere.”
The Cantos and The Waste Land present versions of a world overburdened by factual history and yet threatened at the same time by a loss of authentic cultural tradition. Pound especially had a tortured relation to emergent media forms, most notoriously radio. On one wartime broadcast, he claimed: “The press, your press, is a machine for destroying the memory, the public memory.” As it was for Eliot, for Pound the mass media was generally antithetical to “tradition.” Eliot’s “dissociation of sensibility” occurs in the seventeenth century when poets find themselves no longer capable of “constantly amalgamating disparate experience.” Like the metaphysical poet in Eliot’s account, the contemporary knowledge worker who suffers from overload proves incapable of “constantly amalgamating disparate experience.”
If high modernist poets could envision themselves as critics as well as victims of the discontinuous time of distraction in the workplace, it became more difficult for postwar writers to position themselves outside of the continuous stream of data and distraction. Whereas high modernist poets tended to quote high cultural sources in discrete units, more recent techniques of appropriation suggest that such selective methods of quotation have lost their force within contemporary media culture. Rob Fitterman describes his writing practice:
Fitterman’s appropriation technique calls into question the authenticity of any text in a society dominated by information. But although Fitterman describes our current condition as “the informational morass,” he does not nihilistically suggest that there is nothing we can do about it. On the contrary, he suggests that updated defamiliarization techniques might allow for recognizing new ways of navigating an increasingly commodified infosphere.
Poetry’s engagement with information technologies constitutes its own emergent textual history.
Perhaps the most iconic avant-garde work of information overload is Raymond Queneau’s 1961 One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems, in which ten sonnets can be combined to form 1014 possible sonnets. According to Francois le Lionnais, “Queneau calculated that someone reading the book 24 hours a day would need 190,258,751 years to finish it.” This works out to 2.7 million human life spans at seventy years each. So demanding was the project of writing the poem(s) that Queneau sought the assistance of le Lionnais, a mathematician, thereby inaugurating the Oulipo (or Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, the gathering of mostly Francophone writers and mathematicians who used constrained writing techniques).
Queneau’s poem participates in the information sublime at the same time that it adheres to most of the conventions of the classical sonnet. In accomplishing this fusion of the finite sonnet with the infinitude of the machine, Queneau literalizes two of William Carlos Williams’s most famous statements: “a poem is a small (or large) machine made of words” and “to me all sonnets say the same thing of no importance.” No final meaning can be assigned to a poem whose very parameters exceed the attentional capacities of its readers. But this is not to say that the poem is without meaning. In a 1938 essay, “Wealth and Limit,” Queneau expressed strong concerns about an overabundance of information: “A finite individual cannot, in a finite amount of time, amass an infinite quantity of knowledge (facts).” For Queneau, “By reading many books one can accumulate wealth, but in order to be truly rich you must renounce wealth; you must renounce what Goethe called ‘infinite detail.’” One means by which Queneau aspired to renounce the wealth of information to be found in poetry and in literary history was to undertake to “haikuify” a sonnet of Mallarmé’s, preserving only its rhyming words. Although One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets at first appears to be a limitlessly expansive work, one might also read it as focusing the reader’s attention on the most fundamental attributes of the sonnet form. Reduction and multiplication both function in Queneau’s work as responses to a culture in which “To consult [the Larousse de XXe Siècle], or any catalogue, or any bibliography, is to learn nothing…. [N]o one reads the original works any longer, and if they do glance at them, it’s only for a quick look at the index or the table of contents.” Queneau sees the accumulation of specialized information as having reconfigured the ways in which literary texts are created and experienced. He does not, however, react to this transformation with nostalgia, but rather with a renewed attention to poetic form. This commitment to writing under constraint, which Craig Dworkin refers to as “radical formalism,” continues to be central to the practice of younger poets such as Trisha Low, Sophia le Fraga, Shiv Kotecha, Kieran Daly, Danny Snelson, Joey Yearous-Algozin, and Holly Melgard. Much of this work, which draws heavily on online sources, can be found on sites such as Gauss PDF and Troll Thread. Take, for instance, Danny Snelson’s recent Epic Lyric Poem, which draws from a 257.8 MB database of pop lyrics that is published together with the poem.
Poets have not been passive victims of the proliferation of information, but rather have actively participated in—sometimes benefiting from, sometimes implicitly advocating, sometimes resisting—that proliferation. Poetry’s engagement with information technologies constitutes its own emergent textual history. Poetries of information overload—by which I mean poetries and poems that relate either formally or historically to information saturation—demonstrate an extraordinary range of innovative responses to changing technological conditions. Rather than accept posthistorical pessimism, the poetics of information overload show that there are many possible forms, as well as frames of reference, available to contemporary poetry. This writing asks us to rethink our commonly held notions of literary meaning (what was there to say that can no longer be said?), our notions of communicative transparency (what is the difference between a difficult literary work and a cryptogram?), as well as our notions of personhood (how are we defined by our access to, and ownership of, information?). Much depends on our answers to these questions.
Poetry, that is, continues to have much to say—too much perhaps…
Adapted by the author, Paul Stephens, from The Poetics of Information Overload: From Gertrude Stein to Conceptual Writing, forthcoming in July 2015 from the University of Minnesota Press. Copyright 2015 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota and used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Paul Stephens is a knowledge worker living in New York City.
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