Glut: A book review by Bob Morris

Posted on: August 5th, 2011 by bobmorris

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages
Alex Wright
Cornell University Press ((2007)

How and why “the torch song of technological transcendentalism has passed from the visionary fringe into cultural mainstream”

Alex Wright explains that in this volume, he approaches the story of the information age “by squarely looking backward” and along the way, he (and his reader) will “traverse a number of topics not usually brought together in one volume: evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, mythology, monasticism, the history of printing, the scientific method, eighteenth-century taxonomies, Victorian librarianship, and the early history of the computer, to name a few.” It is an especially exciting journey during which he explores separate but related subjects such as these:

• Creation and subsequent development of language and information
• Corresponding increase of information sources and documentation (e.g. papyrus, codex, printing press)
• Corresponding increase of difficulty with managing information (i.e. accessing, processing, organizing, updating, and distributing it)
• Emergence of communities that accelerate communication, cooperation, and collaboration
• Process by which the human race has reached a “precipice” between “the near limitless capacity of computer networks and the real physical limits of human comprehension”

Wright challenges his reader to ask: Have the nature and extent of information (i.e. its scope, depth, and volume) exceeded our ability to process it, much less manage it? Here’s a related question: If so, will the need for hierarchical control systems preclude man’s “deepest rooted social instincts”? Wright asserts — and I agree — that those instincts are returning to the fore, “as people adapt new technologies to invoke the ancient emotional circuitry that carried us through the age before symbols. The future of memory may lie not in our heads but in our hearts.” I prefer to think that what we have is not a glut of information but, rather, a glut of as-yet unrealized potentialities. By reading Alex Wright’s book, we gain a much deeper understanding of where we have been and thus are better prepared for what has yet to be achieved.


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