In his 1961 short story, “The Overloaded Man,” JG Ballard depicted a business school professor losing his mind, overwhelmed by the world outside his head. Harry Faulkner secretly quits his job and sits all day on the veranda of his university apartment, in a modernist housing complex called “the Bin.” He has trained himself to cognitively dissociate from the world, using “cut-off switches” in his mind to render objects around him as unrecognizable shapes. Eventually, Faulkner loses touch with the world entirely, unable to bear “its overlay of nagging associations.” When his wife discovers him at home during the workday in a stupor, Faulkner’s effort to disconnect culminates in a depersonalized murder-suicide, described through an abstracted interplay of shapes and colors. Ballard captures some of information overload’s signature features: the description of the brain and perception in terms of manipulable mental circuitry, the prototypical overloaded person being a man, a businessman or intellectual, aggravated by the excesses of modern life into a state of unreason (see Erickson et al. 2013, How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind).
At the beginning of the Cold War, the year after she died, the Yale Poetry Review published a piece by Gertrude Stein: a paragraph titled “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” (1947/1998). Atomic bombs were simply too big to care about, she wrote: “if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there is nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about” (1998, 823). But where the overwhelming destructiveness of the bomb led Stein to apathy, it drove others into an unnatural frenzy. Stein concluded: “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story” (1998, 823).
Stein’s story captured the apathy and anxiety of everyday life as it first fell under the shadow of the bomb—what Joe Masco has described as “the overstimulation of the body produced by an all-or-nothing Cold War cosmology” (17)—but it also marked the beginnings of what would eventually be described as a new historical age: the Information Age. It was not the scale of nuclear war that drove people mad, according to Stein, but the scale of information, overwhelming their common sense. The following year would see the publication of Claude Shannon’s “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” (1948), which formalized a definition of information that became so influential, spreading so quickly across scientific fields, that he was soon compelled to disavow “the bandwagon” (1956) that had carried it away from its technical roots in communication engineering. While scientists from biology to sociology tried to recast their fields in informational terms, in a dense post-war “epistemic ecology” (Boyer), anxieties about information and its growing scale spread through popular culture, as well.