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The Information Overload Pop Quiz

September 08, 2022 Information Management
David Lavenda
By David Lavenda

Pick up your No. 2 pencils, it’s time for your first pop quiz of the school season. 

This short exercise will test your knowledge of … well, knowledge.

In today’s age of information, misinformation, disinformation and information overload, it’s a fair bet to that most of us think we are a lot smarter than previous generations.  Those of us who are more modest realize we know more than our predecessors because “we are standing on the shoulders of giants,” which itself is a 900-year old statement originally crafted by French philosopher Bernard of Chartres, but often misattributed to Isaac Newton.

After you complete this challenge, you might be surprised by how long people have been struggling with the same information challenges as today’s smartphone generation.

The Knowledge Challenge

In the following section, you will be presented with a series of quotes related to managing information, knowledge or attention. Your job is to match the quote with the date it was said. You might just be surprised by how old some of our 'new' understandings really are. (Note: some of the quotes have been modernized to remove hints that would give them away, for example, the word ‘information’ was substituted for ‘books’ in some places, since at the time of the quotes, books were the primary source of information).

So, let’s get started! You have 15 minutes to complete this section ….  and Googling is strictly verboten.

Pencils up!

  1. The ringing of a telephone or a doorbell is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts."
    1. 1925
    2. 2001
    3. 1967
    4. 1988
  2. “Those who come after us will see nothing new, nor have those before us seen anything more. Any 40-year-old, if he has any understanding at all has seen all things which have been and all that will be.”
    1. 2nd century CE
    2. 16th century
    3. 20th century
    4. 21st century
  3. “[Information overload] is like when you kneel to plant the seed of a tree and it grows so fast that it swallows your whole town before you can even rise to your feet.”
    1. 1995
    2. 1974
    3. 2010
    4. 1650
  4. "There is no such thing as an attention span [that can be] sustained for more than a few seconds at a time. What is called sustained voluntary attention is a repetition of successive efforts which bring back the topic to the mind."
    1. 1950
    2. 1985
    3. 1891
    4. 1665
  5. "In our time the multitude of books has become an immensity, so that it is more effort to find and distinguish the books than it is to read all our other content.”
    1. 1631
    2. 1255
    3. 1964
    4. 2013
  6. "The shortness of our life and the multitude of things that one must know today to count among the learned, do not allow us to do everything ourselves.”
    1. 1993
    2. 1927
    3. 1776
    4. 1627
  7. "The horrible mass of books which keeps on growing [and] the indefinite multitude of authors will shortly expose us all to the danger of general oblivion.”
    1. 1550
    2. 1982
    3. 2000
    4. 1680
  8. We have reason to fear that the multitude of information which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the future fall into a state of barbarism … — unless we try to prevent this danger by separating information which we must throw or leave in oblivion from that which one should save.”
    1. 1438
    2. 1685
    3. 1999
    4. 2008
  9. The abundance of information is a distraction. [To counter this], you should always read standard authors; and when you crave change, go back to those whom you read before.”
    1. 1st century CE
    2. 10th century
    3. 19th century
    4. 21st century
  10. There is no book so bad that some good cannot be got from it.”
    1. 21st century
    2. 18th century
    3. 3rd century CE
    4. 1st century CE
  11. Because of the multitude of information, the shortness of time, and the slipperiness of memory do not allow all things which are written to be equally retained in the mind, it occurred to me, to write a one volume compendium … from those authors which I was able to read, whoever they be.”
    1. 1255
    2. 1451
    3. 1863
    4. 2010
  12. “Indeed the amount of information is distracting and no one can have the memory of it all. Even more, whoever tries to retain everything will retain nothing well.”
    1. 15th century
    2. 12th century
    3. 21st century
    4. 20th century
  13. Fill the world with information [that is] foolish, ignorant, malignant, libelous, mad, impious and subversive; and will be the flood that even things that might have done some good, lose all their goodness.
    1. 1525
    2. 1190
    3. 2001
    4. 1986

Time’s up. Pencils down.

Check your answers below.


  1. a. – 1925 by inventor Hugo Gernsback
  2. a. – 2nd century CE by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius in “Meditations”
  3. c. – 2010 by computer scientist Jaron Lanier in “You are Not a Gadget”
  4. c. – 1890 by psychologist William James in “The Principles of Psychology
  5. a. – 1631 by Francisco Araoz, a royal official in Seville
  6. d. – 1627 by French librarian Gabriel Naudé
  7. d. – 1680 by scientist Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
  8. b. – 1685 by Adrien Baillet, biographer of Rene Descartes
  9. a. – 1st century, by Roman statesman Seneca
  10. d –  1st century by Roman scientist Pliny the Younger
  11. a – 1255 by Dominican friar Vincent of Beauvais, author of “Speculum mauis” (Greater Mirror), an encyclopedia from the Middle Ages
  12. b – 12th century by the (anonymous) author of “Florilegium Duacense,” a compliation from the Middle Ages
  13. a – 1525 by philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam

Related Article: How to Overcome Information Overload

How Did You Do?

  • 10-13 correct — Gold medal
  • 5-9 correct — Silver medal
  • 0-4 correct — “if you had fun, you won …”

Back to Work

As you settle into a new routine after a restful summer, it helps to remember that complaints about having to deal with (too much) information are nothing new. So, as you plow through your emails, WhatsApp and text messages, calendar and app notifications, and Zoom/Teams meeting invites, take solace in knowing you’re in good company. Earlier generations managed to cope and so will you. 

So, break out the crayons and get cracking. Good luck on your new season.

(Note: Many of these original quotes were taken from Ann Blair's, "Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information Before the Modern Age." I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of information overload.)

About the Author

David is a product expert with extensive experience leading information-intensive technology organizations. His specialty is helping organizations “do it right the first time”— get to market quickly and successfully through a structured process of working closely with design partners from day one.


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