From the Archives: Glut: Mastering information through the ages by Alex Wright

I have a whole pile of science-y book reviews on two of my older blogs, here and here. Both of those blogs have now been largely superseded by or merged into this one. So I'm going to be slowly moving the relevant reviews over here. I'll mostly be doing the posts one or two per weekend and I'll occasionally be merging two or more shorter reviews into one post here.

This one, of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, is from March 25, 2008.


This book should have been called Everything is not Miscellaneous. In fact, this book could be imagined as Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous as written by a slightly old-fashioned librarian.

Book-jacket blurb descriptions aside, Alex Wright's Glut is a fascinating look at the history and methods human culture has used to organized and categorize knowledge and information. More Academic in tone than Weinberger's book, it's a bit dryer and more serious and, of course, a little less prone to unsubstantiated hype. This very clearly not a book aimed at the business audience; you will find no strategies within to make your customers buy more virtual widgets.

Let's have a taste (p. 3-4):

My aim in writing this book is to resist the tug of mystical techno-futurism and approach the story of the information age by looking squarely backward. This is a story we are only just beginning to understand...[W]e are just starting to recognize the contours of a broader information ecology that has always surrounded us. Just as human being had no concept of oral culture until they learned how to write, so the arrival of digital culture has given us a new reference point for understanding the analog age.

Overall, Wright has quite a strong humanities focus in the book with lots about religion, philosophy and literature as well as the history of writing, printing, libraries and how people deal with information. Books and libraries are the main focus. Not so much about biology, physics, chemistry and astronomy. Even the biology chapter is more a mythological or sociological treatment of taxonomy rather than an emphasis of the scientific systems. It really gives the impression that scientists don't classify or organize, only humanists. The second half of the book is better, but a general treatment of the organization of information is missing a lot if it doesn't include the periodic table or the various number systems. Astronomical tables, navigational charts, fossils, chemical names and descriptions, genomic data, all are extensive systems of organized scientific data. Wright also doesn't pay too much attention to non-Western systems of organization.

So, let's do a quick drive-by series of impressions to get the main points. We start with a brief introduction of information networks and hierarchies in both the natural and human information space and then into some discussion of folk taxonomies and the relationship of categorizations to family structures. We then get into the means of transferring information symbolically in pre-literate cultures and the development of written cultures through alphabets. The role of classical Greek culture is stressed and the Library of Alexandria is name-checked.

Next up, Irish monks save civilization and the role of books and libraries in those efforts during the dark ages. The printing press arrives, increasing the distribution of books and fixing texts in time and space. Next we explore Bacon, Wilkins, memory and the role of philosophers. The enlightenment and the development of the scientific methods follows, as does the popularity of encyclopedic projects. Lineaus versus Buffon and taxonomy.

As book production grows and libraries expand, librarians must systematize the ordering of the collections and we see Dewey and Cutter make their entrances. Here we really do see that in a library, everything is not miscellaneous. Now the true here of the book makes his appearance -- Paul Otlet! His amazing accomplishments during World War II are examined and explored, followed by the contributions of Vanevar Bush and his Memex. Eugene Garfield, Ted Nelson, some Andrew Keen-like gnashing of teeth (p. 227-229). Jumping to the modern internet era the web is a place to talk, we see almost the re-emergence of old fashioned oral patterns of communication and increasing tensions between oral and literary cultures.

So, on the whole, what do I think? Wright's book is a pretty good summary of what libraries and librarians have done over the years. It's not so good at looking at what's been done outside the humanities. In fact, in the final chapter I sense a bit of a disdain for computer science people and technologists in general.

Also a bit of obliviousness (p. 201):

Web browsers are ultimately unidirectional programs, designed primarily to let users consume information from a remote source. To the extent that users can create information through a web browser, they must do so through the mediation of that remote source. As an authoring tool, the web browser is all but impotent.

It's hard to imagine three sentences that could destroy the credibility of a book on web and information culture more in 2008 than those three.

Today most of us experience personal computers as fixed entities, with hierarchical folders and a familiar set of programs. Our computers are not so far removed from the dumb terminals of the mainframe era. The know very little about us. [Vanevar] Bush's vision suggests the possibility of smarter machines that could anticipate our needs and adapt themselves to our behaviours, like good servants. (p. 202-203)

Of course, this vision has been around for quite a while in the form of the data mining technologies so widely used by Google, Amazon and others to actually find out so much about our wants and needs.

Even so, Wright's efforts do repay close attention, with lots of good analysis and history if perhaps a bit limited in scope and reach. I would certainly suggest that anyone interested in where the information landscape has been and where it's going read this book. You may not agree with it, but it will get you thinking.

(Book supplied by publisher.)

Wright, Alex. Glut: Mastering: Mastering information through the ages. Washington: Joseph Henry Press, 2007. 286pp. ISBN-13: 978-0801475092

More like this

we can admit "almost the re-emergence of old fashioned oral patterns of communication and increasing tensions between oral and literary cultures."

But I do not agree with that Web browsers are ultimately unidirectional programs,but can be bidirectional if we can master use .