And yet, the deliberate secrecy of the government and the asymmetry of access to information (i.e., the rich hoarding intelligence) is portrayed as an evil. Mismanagement of information in the word-of-mouth networks carrying tidings led to (more) people dying. Wannabe prophets and medical quacks ruled because people lacked the information to discriminate reality from whatever else. In that way, papers that helped news “spread instantly over the whole nation,” might be ultimately redeemed. Life might be perverted as it was converted into information to be transmitted through this new medium, but maybe that was OK. Was the past perfect? No. Would the future be? No. But it could be better.
I had to know more about Defoe. I called up Katherine Ellison to ask her about Defoe and her book on information overload. Reading her criticism and talking with her on the phone, I found a wonderful and nuanced account of a media system in a state of change with Defoe acting as both mover and shaken. He was not alone. Her book situates him among several other literary authors -- John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, and Jonathan Swift -- who dealt with the rise of a new kind of information age while they were writing. Ellison shows how they demonstrated strategies for dealing with this "information overload," a state that existed despite the word's slow entrance into broader usage. As new media flourished, perhaps too vibrantly, these writers found ways to navigate the new arrangements. She writes:
What a close analysis of representative works by each author reveals... is an awareness that goes much beyond acceptance or resistance. Each work traces types of adaptation that readers can adopt to deal with the perceived proliferation of texts. Each demonstrates its own process of technological problem solving.
Rather than a categorical pro- or anti-printing technology stance, these writers figured out ways to work with the new things the technology allowed and society attempted. They gave literate citizens different reading, organizational, and genre strategies.
“People didn't respond solely enthusiastically about the technology. They did not respond only with unbridled enthusiasm or only with horror, saying, ‘We're going too fast, we’re going too fast,’” Ellison told me. “What you see the literary authors doing is already grappling with the consequences and strategies for coping with this perception of being overwhelmed.”
(I would say that the archness we see in the Journal’s take on newspapers is one of those strategies itself. Two aphorisms come to mind: 1) Don’t get high on your own supply and 2) Don’t believe your own press.)
But he goes further. H.F., Defoe’s narrator, models how to interpret the information that the government puts out regarding the state of the plague. His book is filled with notices of the dead in the city, the Bills of Mortality, which serve to chart the rise of the disease outbreak. But he takes this quantification and inflects it with the reality of the human production of statistics.
The next bill was from the 23rd of May to the 30th, when the number of the plague was seventeen. But the burials in St Giles's were fifty-three—a frightful number!—of whom they set down but nine of the plague; but on an examination more strictly by the justices of peace, and at the Lord Mayor's request, it was found there were twenty more who were really dead of the plague in that parish, but had been set down of the spotted-fever or other distempers, besides others concealed.
Many times throughout the book, Defoe’s narrator watches a crowd try to make sense of something, say the appearance of a comet, or an apparition, and he keeps a critical distance, you might say. Maybe even a journalistic distance:
And no wonder, if they who were poring continually at the clouds saw shapes and figures, representations and appearances, which had nothing in them but air, and vapour. Here they told us they saw a flaming sword held in a hand coming out of a cloud, with a point hanging directly over the city; there they saw hearses and coffins in the air carrying to be buried; and there again, heaps of dead bodies lying unburied, and the like, just as the imagination of the poor terrified people furnished them with matter to work upon.
So hypochondriac fancies represent
Ships, armies, battles in the firmament;
Till steady eyes the exhalations solve,
And all to its first matter, cloud, resolve.
In another instance, the narrator watches a person tell a crowd about an angel with a flaming sword that she sees in another cloud. The people begin to join in on her hallucination. “I looked as earnestly as the rest, but perhaps not with so much willingness to be imposed upon,” he writes, “and I said, indeed, that I could see nothing but a white cloud, bright on one side by the shining of the sun upon the other part.”