The 19th-Century Philosopher Who Predicted Data Overload

When it comes to information, more is not always better

Eric Weiner

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Photo: Pennsylvania State University

Ours is a noisy time, but it is not only acoustic noise that is worrisome. A more treacherous clamor is mental noise: the flood of images and information — some useful, most not — that bombards us incessantly. The decibel levels for mental noise are off the chart.

The magnitude of this problem may be larger than ever, but the problem is not new. Some 150 years ago, a grumpy German philosopher (redundant, I know) named Arthur Schopenhauer worried aloud about the proliferation of information, and with it mental noise.

Mental noise does more than disturb. It masks. In a noisy environment, we lose the signal, and our way. Some two centuries before email, the cluttered inbox worried Schopenhauer.

In his essay “On Authorship,” the philosopher foreshadows the mind-numbing racket that is social media, where the sound of the true is drowned out by the noise of the new. “No greater mistake can be made than to imagine that what has been written latest is always the more correct; that what is written later on is an improvement on what was written previously; and that every change means progress.”

We make this mistake — call it Schopenhauer’s Folly — every time we click mindlessly, like a lab rat pulling a lever, hoping for a reward. What form this reward will take we don’t know but that is beside the point. Like Schopenhauer’s hungry readers, we confuse the new with the good, the novel with the valuable.

We humans are not information-processing machines, any more than we are hunting-and-gathering machines. Just as we need time to digest our prey (or our kale salad), we need time to make sense of the information we’ve consumed.

I am guilty of falling for Schopenhauer’s Folly. I’m constantly checking and rechecking my digital vital signs. While writing this paragraph, I have checked my email (nothing), opened my Facebook page (Pauline’s birthday, must remember to send her a note), placed a bid for a nice waxed canvas backpack on eBay, checked my email…

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Eric Weiner

Philosophical Traveler. Recovering Malcontent. Author of four books, including my latest: “The Socrates Express.”