“(P)reviews” from ACM <interactions>, January/February 2008
Reviewed by Fred Sampson
Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages
Joseph Henry Press, 2007
Alex Wright, information architect at the New York Times, presents in Glut a history of information over thousands of years—indeed, from the beginnings of life on earth. Wright’s insights and analysis provide a lucid perspective on the current state and prospects of information management and distribution. As he states in the introduction, Wright intends to “resist the tug of mystical techno-futurism and approach the story of the information age by looking squarely backward.” In so doing, our current challenges and anxiety may be dissolved in the great stew of experience.
Wright takes us through the history of taxonomies, classifications, categories, and catalogs—from the libraries of Alexandria and Rome to the collections of the British Museum—and analyzes the agonized efforts to make information available, initially to the educated and powerful, but eventually to the masses. At every turn we see the decline of civilizations punctuated by the destruction of their libraries, and the rise of subsequent states reflected in the management-by limiting access and distribution or by broadening opportunities-of expanding collections of information. Wright also demonstrates how changes in the human environment lead to changes in technology, in turn leading to changes in society-forces we see at work today.
The information architect of the 21st century might take comfort in the history of information as presented by Wright. There are no truly new problems, only new technology that reintroduces challenges previously addressed. One of the insights that I gained in reading Glut involves the long and glorious history of folk taxonomies (distinguished from, if tantalizingly related to, folksonomies). Even the earliest taxonomies of Linnaeus and his predecessors were based largely on the categories and groupings of the people with the most intimate knowledge of the subject. While Aristotle’s great chain of being provided a top-down hierarchy that included gods, demons, and humans, the bottom-up folk taxonomies proved most useful in practice.
Indeed, we learn that the most effective classifications “feel right” for a reason: The concept of epigenetic rules that hold together biological networks can be seen to influence humans and our tendency to group and classify. It’s only natural. Networks, from bacteria to bees, to human beings and our computers, are deeply rooted in biology. Networks are part of what we are. Wright goes on to introduce the nonbiologists among us to the concepts of epigenetic rules (from biologist E.O. Wilson) and stigmergy. Epigenetic rules combine genetic predispositions with cultural tendencies to carry common ways of classifying and coding across generations. Wilson defines epigenetic rules as “hereditary regularities of mental development” that “animate and channel the acquisition of culture.” The notable coincidence of similar taxonomic systems across different peoples and times suggests an epigenetic rule that supports such universal classification. Stigmergy, in turn, “allows social groups to harness the physical world as a memetic storehouse.” Think ultimately of documents, books, libraries, and the power arising from the mere existence of such collections of information, regardless of content. Indeed, the concept of stigmergy raises for me the gut-level power of Jared Spool’s presentation on inukshuk, Inuit monuments in desolate, lonely places that say to the traveler, “Someone else was here; you are not alone.”
Ultimately, what emerges from a reading of Glut is a reminder that everything we today take for granted was once an innovation, which was once controversial, violently opposed by those who felt threatened by change, and came to be only by virtue of time, location, circumstance, or the power of the individual will, ego, and skills of persuasion. That what resulted was not necessarily the best, but is the survivor of an evolutionary process of natural selection. That what might seem obvious today was once revolutionary, even threatening. And that there are recurrent patterns in the emergence of networks and in the use of hierarchies to organize our world.
In the final chapter, “Memories of the Future,” Wright introduces some thinking about how the history of information might apply to our current experience. Among the insights is that books shared knowledge over time and distance; now distance is not the challenge. But temporal problems remain in that knowledge shared on the Web is frighteningly evanescent: There’s minimal archiving of the Web, links rot, and Wikipedia entries morph. But from another perspective, knowledge sharing over the Internet has, in effect, reverted to humanity’s oral traditions. The nature of today’s communication reinforces the value of story and sharing of the common human experience. Which takes us right back to the earliest ages of prehistory, when shared experiences pulled us together.
A defining characteristic of social and biological networks is the interactions among the network membership, so there is much we can learn from their study. Elsewhere in this issue of interactions, Wright further explores the ideas introduced in the last chapter of the book, positing the applicability of Walter J. Ong’s theory of orality in contrast to literacy, to the present social interaction technologies. Readers may also be interested in Wright’s recent talk at the Long Now Foundation, archived at www.longnow.org, and in his blog and links to articles at www.alexwright.org.
It is all too easy today to find otherwise valuable books to be lacking in editorial guidance or missing the touch of a good copy editor. I might fault Glut in this way, but such flaws do not detract from the remarkable intelligence of Wright’s style; they merely draw attention to the economics of publishing. Rather than dwell on those issues, I prefer to thank the author and publisher for making this valuable and intriguing work available.
Glut offers the information architect in each of us comfort, inspiration, and validation. Comfort in knowing we are not alone, that many inventive and committed historical figures preceded us. Inspiration, by providing context reference, even the science that supports us. Validation by showing how the efforts of the giants who have gone before us result not only in where we are, but also where we can go if we have the vision to do so.
About the Reviewer
Fred Sampson is a staff information developer for the Content Management and Discovery team at the IBM Silicon Valley Lab, where he helps user-experience designers create self-documenting user interfaces; he dreams of growing up to be an information architect. Fred is vice-president for finance of ACM SIGCHI, a senior member of the Society for Technical Communication, and a member of the Information Architecture Institute and the Usability Professionals Association.
To submit a book review, please email Fred Sampson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© ACM 2008. This is the author’s version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. Not for redistribution. The definitive version was published in ACM <interactions>, Volume XV.1, ISSN 1072-5520, (January/February 2008), DOI pending.