“The human being of the near future probably will need as much sleep as he does today. He will spend more time absorbing abstract information than he does today, continuing the trend of past generations. But there is a limit.”
It is a warning that we still hear today in many contexts. For example, author Jonathan Franzen, an opponent of electronic books, argues that traditional paper tomes give humanity some much needed stability in a world rocked by change. He fears that this rapid pace is hurting us. “Seriously, the world is changing so quickly that if you had any more than 80 years of change I don't see how you could stand it psychologically," he said.
Yet history seems to suggest we ride these waves of change. I am typing this on a 15-hour flight over the Pacific Ocean. In that time, I watched two movies, three TV episodes and read half of a (deadtree) book. No one was forcing me to consume this media, nor even write these words. I made a conscious choice that this is how I wished to spend my time. I would also argue that most people reading an essay about the concept of information overload on the internet have some choice in the matter.
Toffler, Bagidikian and Franzen are not necessarily wrong or even alarmist in their concerns that we should seek to control our own technological destinies. But futility should not win the argument. Your consumption of media is largely within your control. We have a choice in the matter. We can change the channel, turn off the TV, or close the laptop lid. These are our choices, and it is hard to see how any of them are irrational or happening to us rather than with us.
Victor Cohn, in his 1956 book, 1999: Our Hopeful Future might have put it most reasonably. Cohn was a pragmatist and understood that we could not run from the future, but that by embracing change we might do some good: “Reject change, and we will be enslaved by it. Others will accept the worst of it and dictate to us. Accept change, and we may control it.”
Sooner or later, the future catches up with us all. But it need not swallow us whole.