Percy Bysshe Shelley Frets About Information Overload ... in 1821

That feeling of flooding from facts? It's centuries old.

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The bard of abundance, as depicted in an 1819 portrait by Alfred Clint (Wikimedia Commons)

In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley -- poet, dramatist, novelist, activist, critic -- wrote a paragraph that would provide the introduction to 1840's A Defence of Poetry. That essay, which would be published posthumously and which was not so much a defense of poetry as an unabashed celebration of it, found the lyricist creating a case for lyric as political art. It would go on to make the famous declaration that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

Shelley's treatise began like so:

We have more moral, political, and historical wisdom than we know how to reduce into practice; we have more scientific and economical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes. There is no want of knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least, what is wiser and better than what men now practise and endure. But we let I dare not wait upon I would, like the poor cat in the adage. We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life; our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.

What's striking here, among so many other things, is the apparent vapidity of Shelley's initial observation -- the fact that, basically, the "we" in question have more knowledge than we know what to do with. If arguments, traditionally, start with the straightforward to work their way to the striking, then the fact that information overload is the first sentence of Shelley's essay would seem to suggest a certain incontrovertibility to the notion. Epistemic glut, in Shelley's mind, seems to be not so much a proposition as a fact.

The Defence's first passage was pointed out by LM Sacasas, he of Frailest Thing fame. And it's a nice reminder of the continuity, and the reassuring banality, of our current intellectual situation. We might feel overwhelmed, occasionally or often, by all the stuff that is out there -- by the trove of global knowledge so vast that it would seem to defy comprehensibility, let alone comprehension. In all that, however, we are in good company with humans of prior generations. As early as 1550, the Italian writer Anton Francesco Doni was complaining that there were "so many books that we do not even have time to read the titles." The 17th century's Comenius referred to granditas librorum -- the "vast quantity of books" -- and Basnage to the "flood." Gesner, writing not too long after the printing press was invented, bemoaned the "confused and irritating multitude of books."

But just as our complaints have their plus ça change quality, so do their corollaries. We end up finding ways to make the sea of information seem less sea-like. We find ways, essentially, to fool ourselves into a sense of sense-making. As controversial as Shelley's ideas about poetry may have been at the time, they speak also to an enduring assumption: that the workings of human creativity -- the clarity of curation, the filter of poetic understanding -- are what will finally save us from ourselves. Whether we are buoyed by the floods of information or drowned by them will depend on our ability to make wisdom out of knowledge, and knowledge out of data. For humans of the 21st century as much as the 16th, our intelligence is contingent on our ability -- just as Shelley said -- "to imagine that which we know."