The fictional heavy-metal band Spinal Tap immortalized the “fine line between clever and stupid.” It’s a similar situation with information access: there’s a fine line between rich and broke. Put another way (by the late cognitive psychologist Hebert Simon): “a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”
Today the poverty of attention seems especially pressing. Technology makes it easier and cheaper to store information of all kinds, far outpacing our ability to convert that information into meaning and knowledge. On the plus side for B&A readers, this situation seems likely to keep information architects gainfully employed for some time to come.
But on a broader cultural and historical level, what strategies has society employed to collect, manage, and store information, even with the constant threat of oversupply, and still make this information accessible and meaningful to people over time?
An answer to that question—in fact, many answers—can be found in Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages, a sweeping new book from Alex Wright about the history of the information and information management systems across disciplines, time, and even across species (bees, ants, primates, eukaryotes.)
Wright, a librarian turned writer and information architect, is no stranger to the Boxes and Arrows community, and in fact, he draws on material from two B&A articles (on IA and sociobiology, another on Belgian bibliographer Paul Otlet) in his new book, now set in a broader narrative. Glut is an informative, ambitious, and at times frustrating work, as Wright juggles three different roles in shepherding his material: tour guide, curator, and essayist.
Wright The Tour Guide
As a tour guide, Wright is a patient, well-informed, and focused narrator, exploring the roots of information systems including writing, classification schemes, books, and libraries. In this mode, his sweeping connection-making is somewhat akin to the work of science historian and BBC documentarian James Burke (a fan of Glut) in its quest for hidden connections between seemingly disparate subjects and causes.
Wright informs us at the outset that he will avoid the lure of utopian techno-futurism and excavate the story of the information age by looking “squarely backward.” Just how far backward? Two billion years ago for the information architecture practices of multi-cell organisms, and for Homo sapiens, try the Ice Age (about 45,000 years ago.) That, Wright tells us, is when our cave-dwelling ancestors started banding together for survival in the face of tougher hunting conditions.
While today we think the biggest challenge of glut is the ensuing time and attention management crunch, Glut reminds us that information acquisition did not come easy in the early days of empire building. A central challenge for many cultures was the amassing of material for that key information storehouse—the library—and trying to protect these centralized physical and intellectual assets from violent destruction:
“From ancient Sumer to India to China to the Aztec kingdom, the same pattern manifested again and again: first came literacy, then the nation-state, the empire, and ultimately the intellectual apotheosis of the empire, the library. When empires fall, they usually take their libraries with them.”
Among some of the other intriguing stops and observations along Wright’s tour:
- Beads and pendants served as a very early symbolic communication for Ice Age Homo sapiens, allowing people to create bonds and achieve more complex social connections.
- “Meta” text of a sort dates as far back as 2300 BC; archeologists have found 2000 tablets including lists of animals and locations as well as listing other tablets.
- Google’s controversial book-scanning effort seems not far afield from the acquisition policy described by Wright for the Alexandrian library: “The Alexandrian rules built the great library not just as an act of imperial generosity but also through fiat, confiscation, and occasionally, subterfuge.
Wright The Curator
Part of Glut feels like an information management museum in book form, and Wright evinces a strong curatorial preference for the quixotic. There’s a sense that he hopes to shift our cultural focus from history’s hit makers to a number of lesser known but meritorious information management ideas from the past that deserve further airtime today.
For example, when Wright works his way up to recent computer history, he avoids focusing on the already well-told and well-documented human-computer interaction story of ARC, PARC, and Apple. Instead, he favors lesser-known milestones in the history of hypertext, with a fresh look at Ted Nelson and several groundbreaking experiments at Brown University (Wright’s undergraduate alma matter).
The Brown University story culminates in a project called Intermedia, which included many features that Wright finds lacking in today’s Web framework, including bi-directional linking (both pointers and targets “know” of the link), and real-time dynamic editing and updating. The project vanished for lack of federal funding in 1994, just before the World Wide Web stepped onto the global stage.
But central exhibit in this wing is Otlet, the 19th century Belgian bibliographer whom Wright dubs as the Internet’s forgotten forefather. Otlet is best known as the developer of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC), a flexible and faceted library classification system in widespread use today worldwide across 23 languages.
Glut focuses on Otlet’s vision for something remarkably similar to today’s World Wide Web, and his efforts to realize it with a kind of manual database comprised of 12 million facts kept on index cards in an office he called the Mundaneum to which readers could submit queries for a small fee.
Otlet hoped that ultimately anyone would be able to access all human knowledge across forms—books, records films, radio, television—remotely from their own homes on multi-windowed screens, and even went so far as to the words “Web” and “links.”
Due to financial constraints and dwindling government support, Otlet found his Mundaneum squeezed into progressively smaller accommodations including a parking lot until he finally shuttered the project in 1934; a few years later, Nazi troops carted it away.
Wright argues that in some ways, Otlet’s ideas not only foretold but also surpassed the current Web: “Distinguishing Otlet’s vision… is the conviction—long since fallen out of favor—in the possibility of a universal subject classification working in concert with the mutable social forces of scholarship.”
Wright The Essayist
One of Wright’s central themes is the pas-de-deux between networks and hierarchies, and the need to balance Web 2.0’s bottom-up, technology-enabled crowd wisdom with a classic sense of the individual expertise, scholarship, and merit guided by human hand.
Decrying what he describes as the utopian view that “hierarchical systems are restrictive, oppressive vehicles of control, while networks are open democratic vehicles of personal liberation,” Wright pursues a throughline across time in which networks and hierarchies are seen not only as competitive but also as potentially complimentary and reinforcing—even essential to one another:
“Networked systems are not entirely modern phenomena, nor are hierarchal systems necessarily doomed. There is a deeper story at work here. The fundamental tension between networks and hierarchies has percolated for eons. Today we are simply witnessing the latest installment in a long evolutionary drama.”
Wright the essayist is an elusive fellow: he combines humanism and pragmatism, and eschews the received techno-hype that is coming back into vogue in the Web 2.0 era. Yet he does not seem prepared to grab the bullhorn from Wright the historian or Wright the curator. Among the arguments Wright puts forward, as best as I can tease out:
- Google’s page-rank algorithm risks reducing the presentation of information to a popularity contest; previous models throughout information management show the possibility of a more balanced and durable approach between classification by human hands (top down) and social meaning (bottom up).
- Today’s Web links are inferior to the bi-directional hypertext linking explored in projects at Brown and envisioned by Ted Nelson and others, in which one linked resource would “know” about other links to it. The current state of hypertext doesn’t realize its full promise of helping to navigate information overload in a way that might better help advance human knowledge.
- Aspects of the Web’s infrastructure (other than nascent Web 2.0 tools) favor one-way consumption rather than two-way discourse, and there’s an ongoing risk of excessive control by corporate interests and unseen technology gatekeepers.
On the book’s very last page, Wright touches on Wikipedia as a modern-day meeting ground for the pull and tug between networks and hierarchies, and notes Wikipedia’s creation of a new hierarchal review process to bolster its credibility. Coming so late and remaining so brief, the discussion seems an afterthought rather than what could have been a convergence of the book’s themes.
Information architects—and anyone curious about the roots of information management—will find much of interest in Glut’s thought-provoking tale. Given the stimulating and contrarian nature of Glut’s ideas, one only wishes Wright would occasionally return from the corridors of the time tunnel and bring his well-informed perspective back to our present age.
To get deeper into the book, “read the excerpt”:http://www.boxesandarrows.com/view/the-encyclopedic.
About the Book
“Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages”:http://www.amazon.com/Glut-Mastering-Information-Through-Ages/dp/0309102383/boxesandarrows-20
2007; Joseph Henry Press