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Authors: Alex Wright

B004R9Q09U EBOK

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GLUT

MASTERING INFORMATION THROUGH THE AGES

 
 

GLUT

 

MASTERING INFORMATION THROUGH THE AGES

 
 

ALEX WRIGHT

 

Joseph Henry Press

Washington D.C.

 
 

Joseph Henry Press
500 Fifth Street, NW
Washington, DC
20001

 

The Joseph Henry Press, an imprint of the National Academies Press, was created with the goal of making books on science, technology, and health more widely available to professionals and the public. Joseph Henry was one of the founders of the National Academy of Sciences and a leader in early American science.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this volume are those of the author and do not reflect the views of the National Academy of Sciences or its affiliated institutions.

 

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

 

Wright, Alex, 1966-

 

Glut : mastering information through the ages / by Alex Wright. p. cm.

 

Includes bibliographical references and index.

 

ISBN 0-309-13587-7  Mobipocket ISBN

 

ISBN 978-0-309-10238-4

 

1. Information organization—History. 2. Information storage and retrieval systems—History. 3. Information society—History. I. Title.

 

Z666.5W75 2007

 

020.9—dc22

 

2007006290

 

Cover design by Michele de la Menardiere.

 
Copyright 2007 by Alex Wright. All rights reserved.
 
Printed in the United States of America
 

Copyright © 2008/2009 Mobipocket.com. All rights reserved.

 

Reader's guide

 

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For my parents

 
 

Our own Middle Age, it has been said, will be an age of “permanent transition,” for which new methods of adjustment will have to be employed … an immense work of bricolage, balanced among hope, nostalgia and despair.

Umberto Eco, “Living in the New Middle Ages”

Contents
 
 

 
Introduction
  
1

 
 

1
 
Networks and Hierarchies
  
5

 
 

2
 
Family Trees and the Tree of Life
  
22

 
 

3
 
The Ice Age Information Explosion
  
39

 
 

4
 
The Age of Alphabets
  
48

 
 

5
 
Illuminating the Dark Age
  
78

 
 

6
 
A Steam Engine of the Mind
  
99

 
 

7
 
The Astral Power Station
  
122

 
 

8
 
The Encyclopedic Revolution
  
143

 
 

9
 
The Moose That Roared
  
152

 
 

10
 
The Industrial Library
  
165

 
 

11
 
The Web That Wasn’t
  
183

 
 

12
 
Memories of the Future
  
230

 
 

 Appendixes  

 
 

A
 
John Wilkins’s Universal Categories
  
239

 
 

B
 
Thomas Jefferson’s 1783 Catalog of Books
  
242

 
 

C
 
The Dewey Decimal System
  
245

 
 

D
 
S. R. Ranganathan’s Colon Classification
  
247

 
 

 
Acknowledgments
  
251

 
 

 
Notes
  
253

 
 

 
Index
  
271

 
Introduction
 

Ever since the Web first started to flicker across the world’s computer screens, we have seen a bull market in hyperbole about the digital age. Visiting San Francisco at the height of the 1990s dot-com boom, Tom Wolfe noted the particular brand of euphoria then sweeping the city. Wolfe, who made his journalistic bones chronicling the raptures of the city’s psychedelic pranksters in the 1960s,
1
spotted a similar strain of quasi-mystical fervor taking hold among the young acolytes of the digital revolution. “Much of the sublime lift came from something loftier than overnight IPO billions,” he wrote, “something verging on the spiritual.” Enthusiastic dot-commers “were doing more than simply developing computers and creating a new wonder medium, the Internet. Far more. The Force was with them. They were spinning a seamless web over all the earth.”
2
In the Day-Glo pages of
Wired
and a host of also-ran
New Economy
magazines, the so-called digerati were pumping a rhetorical bubble no less inflated than the era’s IPO-fueled stock prices. Writer Steven Johnson compared the dawning age of software to a religious awakening, predicting that “the visual metaphors of interface design will eventually acquire a richness and profundity that rival those of Hinduism or Christianity.”
3
Elsewhere, supercomputer pioneer Danny Hillis argued that the advent of the
World Wide Web signaled an evolutionary event on par with the emergence of a new species: “We’re taking off,” he wrote. “We are not evolution’s ultimate product. There’s something coming after us, and I imagine it is something wonderful. But we may never be able to comprehend it, any more than a caterpillar can imagine turning into a butterfly.”
4
More recently, inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has gone so far as to suggest that we are undergoing a “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history,” an event so momentous that it will trigger “the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”
5
Could the arhats themselves have painted a more dazzling picture of enlightenment?

Mystical beliefs about technology are nothing new. In 1938 H. G. Wells predicted that “the whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual,” forming a so-called World Brain that would eventually give birth to a “widespread world intelligence conscious of itself.”
6
Similar visions of an emerging planetary intelligence surfaced in the mid-twentieth century writings of the Catholic mystic Teilhard de Chardin, who foresaw the rise of an “extraordinary network of radio and television communication which already links us all in a sort of ‘etherised’ human consciousness” that would ultimately metamorphize into “a single, organized, unbroken membrane over the earth.”
7
Teilhard believed that this burgeoning networked consciousness signaled a new stage in God’s evolutionary plan, in which human beings would coalesce into a new kind of social organism, complete with a nervous system and brain that would eventually spring to life of its own accord. Teilhard never published his writings—the Catholic Church forbade him from doing so—but his essays nonetheless found an enthusiastic cult following among fellow Jesuits like Marshall McLuhan, who took Teilhard’s vision as a starting point for formulating his theory of the global village.

Today, the torch song of technological transcendentalism has passed from the visionary fringe into the cultural mainstream. Scarcely a day goes by without some hopeful dispatch about new Web
applications, digital libraries, or techno-capitalists spending billions to wire the developing world. Some apostles of digitization argue that the expanding global network will do more than just improve people’s lives; it will change the shape of human knowledge itself. Digital texts will supplant physical ones, books will mingle with blogs, and fusty old library catalogs will give way to the liberating pixie dust of Google searches. As the network sets information free from old physical shackles, people the world over will join in a technological great awakening.

Amid this gusher of cyber-optimism, a few dissidents have questioned the dark side of digitization: our fracturing attention spans, the threats to personal privacy, and the risks of creeping groupthink in a relentlessly networked world. “We may even now be in the first stages of a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual,”
8
writes critic Sven Birkerts. In this dystopian view, the rise of digital media marks an era of information overload in which our shared cultural reference points will dissolve into a rising tide of digital cruft.

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