information overload and burnout

In the nineteenth century, continuous partial attention was a burning problem:

Until the 1820s (when candle technology started to improve markedly), both wax and tallow candles needed frequent “snuffing.” We commonly misunderstand the term snuffing today — it did not mean to put a candle flame out; instead, it meant to trim the candle’s wick. If one did not snuff frequently, then the wick would grow longer as the wax melted, curving over toward the small wall of solid material holding in the melted wax or tallow. The curving wick would then melt the wall, causing the molten material to flow down the candle and be lost. This phenomenon was called “guttering,” and it ensured that the candle burned less efficiently and for a shorter time. Tallow candles left unattended might use just five percent of their material and gutter out within half an hour. …the point is that reading was regularly interrupted — perhaps every ten minutes or so — by the need to snuff a candle.[1]

Candles early in the nineteenth century were probably about as distracting as Twitter is today. Perhaps a distinctive feature of modern life is that the admonition “stay awake, stay alert” has become unusual.


[1] Eliot, Simon (2001), “‘Never Mind the Value, What about the Price?”; Or, How Much Did Marmion Cost St. John Rivers?” Nineteenth-Century Literature, Vol. 56, No. 2, pp. 173, 177.

government communications

Government printing jobs have contributed significantly to the development of the printing industry. In North America from 1640 to 1790, printed government documents probably accounted for about 30% of printed documents considered to have enduring significance. In the U.S. at the end of the twentieth century, the number of titles that the Government Printing Office issued was equal to about a quarter of the total number of new books and new editions that other printers published. Other countries have probably had an even higher share of government publications. Government printing contracts are typically highly sought for the stable and predictable demand they provide. In addition, government documents have had a distinctive role in the evolution of copyright.[1]

Like print communication about government proceedings, video communication about government proceedings is intimately related to the functioning of democracy. In a letter to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Carl Malamud stated:

Based on 25 years of experience in the field of computer networking and a 2-year investigation of this specific issue, I have absolutely no doubt that it is technically and financially feasible for the U.S. Congress to provide a permanent broadcast-quality video record of proceedings and hearings for download on the Internet. Technically speaking, this is a “no-brainer.” This is simply a matter of will.

Adopting a goal that by the end of the 110th Congress, the U.S. House of Representatives will offer broadcast-quality video of the floor and all hearings for download on the Internet is a reachable goal and one that will set a standard for transparency and openness. Your leadership in embracing this goal would set an example for all branches of the federal government, indeed for all governments here and abroad. If a hearing is to be considered truly public, the public has to be able to see it, both now and forever. I encourage you to adopt this standard as a goal for the 110th Congress.

The Government Printing Office (letter) and C-SPAN (press release) (after some controversy) have recognized the democratic importance of making video of government proceedings more widely available. E-government initiatives have tended to focus on information provision and electronic transactions. Video is not necessary for either. Video, however, is a powerful mode for attracting attention and creating a sense of personal relationship between government representatives and citizens. Thus politicians are typically keen to gain access to television, and political campaign fund-raising in the U.S. primarily serves to provide money for buying television time.

Expanding government video production can foster more capable and less costly video distribution networks. As Malamud explained in a Google Tech Talk, his proposal would make about 50 hours per day of original Congressional video available to the public. That large video source could serve as a testbed for the development of annotation technologies and might help to move along multicast capabilities for the Internet. Moreover, when potential state and local government video sources are added to federal sources, government video could amount to a significant share of video on the Internet. Government video might become as significant in the development of video communication as government printing has been in the development of print communication.

Related News: The U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) recently established a new communications contract for voice, IP, wireless, satellite and IP-centric services for the federal government. The GSA estimates that the over-all federal contract, called Networx, has a value of $20 billion across ten years.


[1] The North American Imprints Program (NAIP) provides a database of items that were printed from 1640 to 1790 and preserved in American libraries. In a categorization of these items, the largest five categories, with percent of total records, are: government printing (30%), sermons (13%), almanacs (8%), poetry (5%), and juvenile/schoolbooks (5%). These statistics exclude records for booksellers’ advertisements, subscribers’ lists, playbills, and sections of books (analytic records). Printing statistics based on page counts, or page area, produce different values, but that government printing was significant for the printing industry is clear. See Amory, Hugh (2000), “Appendix One: A Note on Statistics,” in Hugh Amory and David D. Hall, eds., The Colonial Book in the Atlantic World (New York: Cambridge University Press). For late twentieth century statistics, see Galbi, Douglas (2001), “E-Government: Developing State Communications in a Free Media Environment” p. 2. In the U.S., federal government documents are in the public domain (no persons holds copyright to them). Moreover, a case concerning U.S. federal court reports settled the statutory basis of copyright. See Wheaton v. Peters (1834).

voice in virtual worlds

Nothing heats up passions like voice communication in virtual worlds. Linden Labs’ recent blog post announcing that it’s bringing integrated voice communication to Second Life generated 527 comments. The next day Terra Nova had a post entitled “The inevitability of voice.” That post has generated 132 comments. Those comments include a debate about whether more communication is better than less. Because more words don’t necessarily mean more communication, but silencing a person is sure to suppress communication, I’m happy to be able to choose not to discuss that debate.

Voice communication has obvious value over text for coordinating rapid manual action in a group. Parties on quests and in combat in virtual worlds already use voice tools such as Roger Wilco, Teamspeak, and Ventrilo.

Dmitri Williams’ research on the effects of adding voice communication to communication capabilities in World of Warcraft found:

Players who use voice come to like each other more and become closer. Compared to a text-only control group, they develop higher levels of trust, liking and happiness, and lower levels of loneliness. So, with all due respect to the magic circle, it’s clearly worth breaking.

He discusses these findings with respect to the effects of self-disclosure on inter-personal relations:

In the end, those who disclose more about themselves (i.e. take that risk) get more in return, I think. They are less lonely. McKenna and Bargh found that about 5 years ago, and I think it fits the voice data as well: self disclosure leads to a deeper series of ties between people, even online. It’s more information and it’s more human and engaging, capitalizing on the sensory and interpersonal tools that we have evolved over millenia.

It’ll be really interesting to watch as people create and manage opt-in and opt-out and masking tools to mediate their levels of exposure. They’re essentially saying how much of themselves they want to reveal with their choices. And, the data from my one study and the McKenna and Bargh and others, generally suggest that those people who take the richer media and use it will probably fare the best, socially and emotionally. McKenna actually found that this effect transcended how shy people were, i.e. the shy people who took the leap of faith thrived, and the extroverts who didn’t started having losses.

In research on interpersonal relations, self-disclosure typically has been understood within an information transfer model — how much personal information you disclose to another. Both voice and text are low-cost means for disclosing age, sex, location, community of expression, and similar information.

Voice and text differ in the balance of costs for information processing when persons care about such information transfer and have different objectives with respect to it. In voice communication, obscuring or faking age, sex, or accent requires a lot of work, while much information about these attributes typically can be extracted at low cost. The opposite is true with text communication. Voice and text have significantly different default costs positions for certain types of information objectives.

Relationship-specific self-disclosure of information that makes a person vulnerable can strengthen a relationship by increasing the recognized cost of terminating the relationship. Truthful disclosure of age, sex, and location might have some relation to general aspects of personal vulnerability. But to the extent that disclosure of that information is associated with the use of voice, the disclosure isn’t relationship-specific and doesn’t effect the cost of breaking the relationship.

Most text communication in virtual worlds doesn’t seem to involve a high investment in determining the scope of information transfer:

Real-time communication in modern MMORPGs is a funny thing. With rare exception, it tends to resemble anything but “role-playing”. MMO user text generally consists of acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), poor grammar, and a million little references to the outside world (”hang on, my dog is barking.”) Speech is, in some ways, even worse — nothing like the screech of a petulant 10-year-old (or the sound of a toilet flushing in the background) to disturb the illusion of fantasy.

Moreover, most virtual world participants probably don’t have conflicting objectives with respect to information transfer. Play and let be! Nonetheless, virtual world participants seem to care about biological attributes of their co-participants:

The evolutionary psych crowd seems to have it right. The functions of voice occur for humans in this order: Are they really human? What is their gender? Are they intelligent? and Do I like them? In other words, ASL [age, sex, location] isn’t too far off, and appears to be driven by biology first, then moderated by medium.

That’s not a matter of self-disclosure, understood as relationship-specific information transfer. The way persons use voice in virtual worlds seems to me to be evidence of the human nature of making sense of presence.

novel content creation and the 18th-century reading revolution

In the middle of the eighteenth century, a new form of content creation grew rapidly in Britain. The new popular content was long, realistic but fictional narratives of ordinary individuals whose lives nonetheless were put forward as significant for everyone. These works were called “novels.”

Novels were YouTube in the eighteenth century. Authors of novels included roughly equally men and women, “leisured gentlewomen, high-profile aristocrats, obscure vicars, and curates, sea captains, destitute merchants’ wives, reformed and some unreformed prostitutes, over-archieving adolescents, and pious autodidacts.” A leading novel publisher in Britain explained in 1769:

all we have hitherto published have been sent to us unsolicited from their authors, without any stipulated pay, promise of reward, or previous agreement whatsoever, either by ourselves or any other person for us.

Most authors didn’t even have their names attached to their work: about 72% of new novels published in Britain and Ireland, 1770-1799, were published anonymously.[1]

Most novelists received little monetary compensation for their works. Sometimes authors funded publication of their works, or assumed liability for losses from publication. When authors sold their copyrights, the typical payment was low but payment variance was high. For example, in 1787 a publisher bought a copyright from an obscure novelist for £5, while in 1794 the same publisher bought a copyright from a well-known novelist for £500. The median payment to British novelists among surviving copyright sales receipts, 1770-1799, was about £29. That was about the annual earnings of building craftsmen. By 1860 in the U.S., only 216 persons declared their profession to be “author.” In contrast, 3,154 persons declared their occupations to be the newer occupations of daguerreotypist and photographer.[2]

While authors of novels typically did not earn enough money to sustain themselves, novels quickly dominated popular book reading. In the late eighteenth century, purchasing books would have been a financial hardship for most persons. Social and commercial libraries, however, made books much more readily available. At the end of the eighteenth-century in Britain and in the U.S., novels comprised 40% or higher shares of titles in commercial circulating libraries. Limited evidence from circulation records suggests that the share of novels among books borrowed was probably higher than 50%.

Novels had well-recognized popular effects in the second half of the eighteenth-century. Commentators observed that a rage to read (Lesewut) was gripping the German lands. Reading the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werther, 1774) prompted young men to dress like the character Werther.  Reportedly about 2000 young men committed suicide in sympathy with Werther.  In France, the novel Julie, or the New Heloise (Julie, ou la nouvelle Héloïse, 1761) created a large body of weaping readers. American readers of the highly popular novel Charlotte Temple (1794) tended her purported grave in New York City.

The prevalence of imitations, mock sequels, and parodies among late eighteenth-century novels marked them to contemporaries as a “faddish, superficial make of literature.” Following Henry Mackenzie’s popular Man of Feeling (1771) came the anonymous and forgotten Man of Failing (1789). Only one year after Hannah More’s highly successful didactic work, Coelebs in Search of a Wife (1809) came Coelebs in Search of a Mistress (1810), under the likely authorial pseudonym Sir George Rover. Many now-forgotten novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were hastily written, poorly crafted works.[4]

Many influential persons in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries considered novels to be wastes of time, causes of ill health, and corrupters of virtue and morals. In 1794 a London reviewer described a new novel, Widow, as “fashionably vicious.” The reviewer warned against reading such novels and implicitly proclaimed the importance of the reviewer’s own work:

O! for a warning voice to prevent those, at least, in whom age has not yet destroyed the capabilities of improvement, from dreaming away their hours in turning over publications like these.

Another author more directly warned against reading for amusement and diversion:

To read a book merely in order to kill time is an act of high treason toward humanity because one is belittling a medium that was designed for loftier purposes.

Others described reading as a cause of masturbation and other injuries to good health:

the obligatory position, the lack of all physical movement when reading, combined with the violent alternation of imaginings and feelings [create] limpness, bloatedness and constipation of the intestines, in a word hypochondria, which has a recognized effect on the genitals of both sexes, particularly of the female sex [and creates] coagulations and defects in the blood, excitation and exhaustion of the nervous system, as well as conditions of langour and weakness in the whole body.

The effect of novels on manners and morals was an acute concern. Novel reviewers in London publications in the late eighteenth century described reviewed novels as “one of these pernicious incentives to vice that are a scandal to decency”; “utterly repugnant to every idea of delicacy and honor”; and, “Written solely for the use of circulating libraries, and very proper to debauch all young women who are still undebauched.” A popular American author of conduct literature noted in 1831:

Of late years, the circulating libraries have been overrun with profligate and strongly exciting works, many of them horribly exciting. I have deep prejudice against the whole class. The greater the genius displayed, the more dangerous the effects. The necessity of fierce excitement in reading is a sort of intellectual intemperance; and like bodily intoxication, it produces weakeness and delirium….They have a most unhealthy influence upon the soul….

From a less evangelical, more republican position, novels were described as “murdering of freedom of thought and the press.” Similarly quotations from late eighteenth and early nineteenth century sources could be multiplied endlessly. All the ill effects ascribed to television, video games, and the Internet in recent years apply equally well to reading novels two hundred years ago.[5]

Novels and tabloids changed persons’ relationships to printed words. Historians of the book have described a “reading revolution” (Leserrevolution) — a shift in the distribution of reading from intensive reading (reading a book, particularly the Bible, carefully and repeatedly) toward extensive reading (reading one new novel after another). More generally, the rise of empirical science shifted authority from a bounded text to an unbounded corpus of evidence. The expansion of print functioned like science in the realm of imagination and culture.

About 1854, a man who grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut recalled his youth:

Books and newspapers — which are now diffused even among the country towns, so as to be in the hands of all, young and old — were then scarce, and were read respectfully, and as if they were grave matters, demanding thought and attention. They were not toys and pastimes, taken up every day, and by everybody, in the short intervals of labor, and then hastily dismissed, like waste paper. The aged sat down when they read, and drew forth their spectacles, and put them deliberatively and reverentially on the nose. These instruments [spectacles] were not as now, little tortoise-shell hooks, attached to a ribbon, and put off and on with a jerk; but they were of silver or steel, substantially made, and calculated to hold on with a firm and steady grasp, showing the gravity of the uses to which they were devoted. Even the young approached a book with reverence, and a newspaper with awe. How the world has changed![6]

Yes, the world has changed. The world continues to change.

The history of the novel helps to provide some perspective on current media developments. Today major media companies are struggling to set up user-generated content divisions to foster production of user-generated content. At the same time, author and blogger Andrew Keen is promoting his new book entitled, “The Cult of the Amateur.” He recently changed the book’s subtitle from “How the democratization of the digital world is assaulting our economy, our culture and our values” to “How today’s Internet is killing our culture.” Without a whiff of amusement, a leading blogger laments, “There’s no food for thought in this book.” Even more seriously, a business intelligence company recently reported that user-generated videos “made up 47% of the total online video market.” The report proclaimed, “consumer usage exploded in 2006 but revenues will prove slow to develop. The honeymoon period for user generated content is over.”

The entertainment business is as strong as ever.

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Read more:


[1] Raven, James (2000), “Historical Introduction: The Novel Comes of Age,” in The English novel, 1770-1829: a bibliographical survey of prose fiction published in the British Isles, gen. eds. Peter Garside, James Raven, and Rainer Schöwerling (Oxford: Oxford University Press), vol. 1, pp. 17, 51, 42.

[2] Id. pp. 52-53, which records 51 copyright receipts. In 1757, a journalist complained that a bookseller-publisher “never paid to any author for his labour a sum equal to the wages of a journeyman taylor.” Quoted in id. pp. 50-1. Building craftmen in Southern England, 1736-1773, earned about 24 pence per day, or about £30 for a full year of work. See B.R. Mitchell, British Historical Statistics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p. 165. The data on occupations is U.S. Census data, collated and discussed in Galbi, Douglas (2003), “Copyright and Creativity: Photographers and Authors.”

[3] Raven (2000) p. 85-6, 93; Winas, Robert B. (1975), “The Growth of a Novel-Reading Public in Late-Eighteenth-Century America,” Early American Literature, IX.

[4] Raven (2000) pp. 15, 34. Garside, Peter (2000), “The English Novel in the Romantic Era: Consoliation and Dispersal,” p. 58, in Garside, Raven, and Schöwerling, vol. 2.

[5] Raven (2000) p. 119; Wittmann, Reinhard (1999), “Was there a Reading Revolution?” in A history of reading in the West, eds. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press) p. 301, quoting J.A. Bergk, Die Kunst, Bücher zu lesen (1799) p. 69 and Karl G. Bauer, Über die Mittel, dem Geschlechstrieb eine unschädliche Richtung zu geben (1791) p. 190; Raven (2000) pp. 17, 114, 101; Lydia Maria Child, The Mother’s Book (1831), Ch. VII; Wittmann (2000), quoting, original source not cited; see Dmitri Williams (2003), “The Video Game Lightening Rod: Constructions of a New Media Technology,1970-2000,” Information, Communication & Society 6:4 pp. 523–550.

[6] Goodrich, Samuel G. (1857), Recollections of Lifetime (New York: Miller, Orton & Co.) vol. 1, p. 86, quoted in David D. Hall, “The Uses of Literacy in New England, 1600-1850,” in William Joyce et al., eds, Printing and Society in Early America (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1983) p. 21.