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The Tools We Use

Three of the tools we use the most to create and record information were invented in the last one hundred years.   Just as the invention of the printing press and moveable type by Gutenberg launched a revolution in the distribution of books (and later on, newspapers, magazines, and other printed material), several nineteenth- and twentieth-century discoveries begat a revolution in the distribution of individually-crafted documents, namely the typewriter, the photocopier, and word processing software.

These three inventions did more to shape the creation and mass distribution of information (both in individual and mass quantity) than anything that preceded it in the history of mankind.

At the same time, however, these benefits came with a price: the better the technology has gotten, the more copies of information have been able to be made and distributed.

Indeed, until the era of the laser printer arrived in the 1990s, creators of documents had two choices.  There were those few documents important enough to warrant the investment of time and energy in setting type and printing and the overwhelming majority of documents that didn’t, many of them of an ephemeral nature.  The photocopier closed the gap between commercial printing and low-volume copying (which had been more likely to have been handled via carbon copies than anything else).   It also gave knowledge workers the ability to distribute anything and everything to as many people as they wished, just as e-mail does today, albeit with less speed and efficiency.

The typewriter and the photocopier opened the door for knowledge workers to create and send documents to multiple recipients but there were still some significant limitations compared to what is available today using e-mail.  The distribution of documents within a building or campus was relatively easy and done via intra-office mail or simply by dropping off the document in the recipient’s inbox.  For those people traveling or in a different office or company, documents were typically sent by mail and this meant that they would not arrive until several days later.

Today, the norm is to measure the arrival of documents in seconds – and our new discoveries allow us to create more documents, more drafts and versions of the documents we are creating, as well as to distribute them to dozens if not hundreds or thousands of people with the click of a button.
That change is one of the key reasons why we have to contemplate the problem of Information Overload.