Glut : mastering information through the ages

Written by someone with similar credentials (a Masters in Library Science and a B.A. in English Literature), I found this book paralleled somewhat the explorations and efforts I hope to undertake with this blog.
Wright’s approach to the information age is to look backward– to look at the broader information ecology that has always surrounded us. Historical perception can be blurred and lost with the teleology of the forward, linear progression that powers the operation of computers. With so much hype about the latest technological wizardry, especially the web 2.0 phenomenon, I think this book is a valuable tool that helps us evaluate how well the new stuff stacks up against previous accomplishments, and whether or not we are making the same mistakes as others have made or missing out on what has been already been learned.
Wright brings together many topics in his book: evolutionary biology, cultural anthropology, mythology, monasticism, the history of printing, the scientific method, eighteenth-century taxonomies, Victorian librarianship, and the early history of computers. The range of topics is appropriate considering the actual subject matter of the book– the glut of information in our current age, and the attempts to organize it and to find the best ways of storing and accessing it.
Notes and quotes from Glut:
Ch. 1. Networks and hierarchies
The term "epigenetic" came up in another book I read recently, Survival of the Sickest. Epigenetics properly refers to transgenerational adaptations that occur without an underlying change to DNA. Wright uses the term epigenetic in a very broad sense, referring to the adaptive value of dispositions to following particular cultural rules. Archetypes, memes, culturgens– these are all terms that have been used to describe consistent patterns of behaviour that have endured and continue to affect us today, in particular in the ways we are disposed to think about organizing information.
Wright provides some examples of epigenetic effects from the animal world. The entire macaque population of Japan has learned how to sift wheat from sand in sea water. This behaviour was passed on after one enterprising macaque learned the trick. There is a potential lesson here for the value of Web 2.0 social networking– the more time allowed and the higher the population density, the more likely beneficial information-sharing is likely to occur.
Ch. 2. Family trees and the tree of life
All original taxonomies were "folk taxonomies" or folksonomies. The practice of biological classification is ancient and universal.
Quote from Stephen Jay Gould: "Taxonomies are reflections of human thought; they express our most fundamental concepts about the objects of our universe."
Linnaean taxonomy:
Some mnemonics I found on the web for the Linnaean taxonomic system:
King Phillip called out for good soup.
King Phillip cut open five green snakes.
Kant provides crazy ontology for graduate students.
The full Linnaean taxonomy for us:

Domain: Eukaryota (organisms which have cells with a nucleus)

Kingdom: Animalia (with eukaryotic cells having cell membrane but lacking cell wall, multicellular, heterotrophic)

Phylum: Chordata (animals with a notochord, dorsal nerve cord, and pharyngeal gill slits, which may be vestigial)

Subphylum: Vertebrata (possessing a backbone, which may be cartilaginous, to protect the dorsal nerve cord)

Class: Mammalia (warm-blooded vertebrates with hair and mammary glands which, in females, secrete milk to nourish young)

Subclass: Placentalia (giving birth to live young after a full internal gestation period)

Order: Primates (collar bone, eyes face forward, grasping hands with fingers, and two types of teeth: incisors and molars)

Family: Hominidae (upright posture, large brain, stereoscopic vision, flat face, hands and feet have different specializations)

Genus: Homo (s-curved spine, "man")

Species: Homo sapiens (high forehead, well-developed chin, skull bones thin)

Apparently, most cultures have developed similar taxonomies for plants and animals, with five or six nested categories. A particular focal point is the generic level, equivalent to the genus level in the Linnaean taxonomy. Wright makes the interesting point that this level is the basis of networked thinking– the genus level is the "real" name of an organism and the taxonomic layers that surround it are reinforced over time and passed on culturally by social networking effects in large groups.
We see echoes of taxonomic efforts in the pantheons and family trees of gods created in polytheistic religions. It’s an interesting question as to whether family trees and notions of kinship influenced humanity’s efforts to categorize the world, or if the patterns observed in nature influenced the ways we think about family relationships.
Ch. 3. The ice age information explosion
The challenge of living in an ice age resulted in stronger bonds and greater symbolic communication in early humanity. The beads and pendants of ice age humans are the first unambiguously symbolic objects. The meaning of the beads and pendants would have had to be agreed upon by the social group– a form of writing in fact. And like some writing today, there may have been an emotional impact to these beads and pendants– feelings of power, loyalty, and love perhaps.
In a recent project management course I took I came across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Cultural expression was at the top of pyramid– which means we get to it only after all other needs are satisfied. But symbolic expression may have played a vital part in ice age humanity. Art may have been the social glue that allowed Homo sapiens to survive.
This diagram shows Maslow's hierarchy of needs, represented as a pyramid with the more primitive needs at the bottom. 
Maslow’s hierarchy of needs (notice the hierarchy is five layers deep– epigenetic disposition to seeing the world at this level of organization?)
Ch. 4. The age of alphabets
First known bibliographic record was found at the ancient Hittite site of Hattusas, near Ankara. It was a list of other documents that included title pages and colophons containing brief descriptions of each tablet. In the colophons were a brief set of keywords, indicating content, and a number which indicated that the tablets were stacked in a predictable sequence.
Hattusas was the capital city of the Hittite Empire (situated roughly in what is now Turkey and Syria). The most notable cuneiform tablet found in the royal archives was one of the oldest known international peace treaties, a treaty dated circa 1283 BC between the Hittite Empire and Ramesses II of Egypt.
Egypto-Hittite Peace Treaty (c. 1258 BC) between Hattusili III and Ramesses II is the best known early written peace treaty. Istanbul Archaeology Museum Egypto-Hittite peace treaty (c. 1258 BC) found in Hattusas. It was part of a royal collection in which was found the first bibliographic record.
In the seventh century BC, King Ashurbanipal of the Assyrian empire issued a decree to build a vast library. "No one shall withhold tablets from you, and if you see any tablets and ritual texts about which I have not written to you, and they are suitable for my palace, select them, collect them and send them to me." As a result of the development of Royal Library of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire, the world was able to reconstruct the story of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian account of the great flood. See earlier blog entry about a book on the finding of the Gilgamesh tablets.
Nineveh was destroyed and the library buried in sand over time. Other libraries or collections of texts were not so spared. In 213 BC, the Chinese Emperor Shi Huangdi ordered a biblioclasm: the destruction of every book in the kingdom. In sixteenth-century Mexico, Bishop Diego de Landa ordered the burning of the bark-clothed books of the Aztecs. "When empires fall, they usually take their libraries with them."
Wright makes a great point about the Greeks as they made the leap from mythic to "theoretic" thought, which is the ability to reflect on the process of thought itself. The process of textualization, of writing down what were oral traditions, results in a stripping away of the mythic significance of the old stories. Astrology becomes astronomy; alchemy becomes chemistry. Nature becomes demythologized when classified and placed in a theoretical framework. However, the narrative tradition is difficult to remove entirely. Greek myths are still taught to children today. In our culture, the two modes co-exist. What is interesting about a public library for me is that the narrative mode and the analytic mode sit together under one roof. Fiction and nonfiction have their places in the mandates of public libraries.
The famous Library of Alexandria was established around 300 BC with an ambition to gather all the world’s knowledge under one roof. The building was designed to facilitate Aristotle’s peripatetic ideal of scholarship, where scholars could stroll around and discuss topics of interest amidst the wide colonnades. This physical reality mirrored an idealistic value of intellectual freedom where anyone could roam the world of collected knowledge in the library.
The first librarian in Alexandria was named Zenodotus. He organized the library by assigning texts to different rooms based on their subject matter. A small tag was attached to the end of each scroll, describing the work’s title, author, and subject. Later the poet and librarian Callimachus created a separate catalog called the Pinakes, or, Tables of Persons Eminent in Every Branch of Learning Together with a List of their Writings." The catalog classified works by author in the two broad categories of poetry and prose:


Dramatic poets






Epic poets

Writers on medicine

Lyric poets


As Rome developed, private libraries grew as wealthy citizens decorated their homes with books. Julius Caesar initiated a plan to build a public library in Rome, which was undertaken after his assassination. The library was divided into Greek and Latin works– a two-part division that would be modified in the Christian era into religious and secular works.

The long tradition of civic bibliophilia declined over time. In 378 AD, Ammianus, the last major Roman historian, wrote about a citizenry that had abandoned a love of knowledge for the pleasure of the flesh:

In place of the philosophers the singer is called in, and in place of the orator the teacher of stagecraft, and while the libraries are shut up forever like tombs, water-organs are manufactured and lyres as large as carriages, and flutes and huge instruments for gesticulating actors.

Ch. 5. Illuminating the dark age

When describing the contribution of Irish scribes to the preservation of written knowledge, Wright quotes from Thomas Cahill’s How the Irish Saved Civilization:

[The scribes] did not see themselves as drones. Rather, they engaged the text they were working on, tried to comprehend it after their fashion, and, if possible, add to it, even improve upon it. In this dazzling new culture, a book was not an isolated document on a dusty shelf; book truly spoke to book, and writer to scribe, and scribe to reader, from one generation to the next. These books were, as we would say in today’s jargon, open, interfacing, and intertextual–glorious literary smorgasbords in which the scribe often tried to include a bit of everything, from every era, language, and style known to him.

Wright then goes on to compare this to what many modern bloggers are attempting to do. The parallel might come to an ethos of self-directed writing with the introduction of a new technology– a promise of new forms of expression.

As Rome fell, and the great libraries were being destroyed, a nobleman named Cassiodorus abandoned the city and the increasing strength of the church to found a small monastery where he set about preserving the Roman literary heritage. This scriptorium he called the Vivarium, "a place for living things." The monks of the Vivarium pioneered new techniques of book production, introducing efficient new binding techniques and engineering a system for mechanical lighting to enable work on copying projects into the night. Cassidorus’ division of Christian and pagan writings would become the foundation of medieval libraries for the next thousand years.

A revival of book learning flourished briefly in Charlemagne’s court in the eighth century. Charlemagne found a suitable learned man, Alcuin, a scholar from York, to build his great library. Alcuin introduced a new style of script, Carolingian minuscule, to speed up copying. The typefaces of most books today are descended from Carolingian minuscule.

The collections in European libraries were paltry compared to their Islamic counterparts. Prior to its fall to the Mongols in 1258, Baghdad had no fewer than 36 libraries, supplied by more than 100 book dealers.

The circuitous path of ancient books into the Arab world:

– Emperor Justinian closes the great school of Athens

– seven prominent teachers leave Athens to find refuge in Persia, and they take their books with them

– hundreds of translaters (mostly Hellenized Syrians) translate the great works of antiquity from Greek to Persian

– the Arabs conquer Persia, and proceed to translate the works into Arabic

Ch. 6. A steam engine of the mind

Wright describes the rise of textual communities– communities that coalesced around particular documents published by the newly invented printing press. Instead of being dependent upon the scholastic elite, the literate populace could share and rally around particular texts. The most famous examples are Luther’s 95 theses and Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Ch. 7. The astral power station

Francis Bacon – restructuring the enterprise of scholarship by emphasizing induction, which is reasoning from direction observation, and collaborative scholarship that viewed knowledge as a cumulative enterprise.

Inherent human limitations have to be overcome, according to Bacon, and these he called "idols":

Idols of the Cave. The problem of subjectivity– our personal biases.

Idols of the Tribe. The problem of human limitations, such as our perceptual constraints.

Idols of the Marketplace. The problem of socially constructed meaning, such as the vagaries of the human language.

Idols of the Theatre. The problem of belief, such as our mythologies, religious beliefs, or ideological convictions.

Bacon’s classification of all human knowledge was based on the three essential faculties: memory, reason, and imagination. In more familiar terms, these three can be categories are called history, philosophy, and poetry. "Diderot would embrace Bacon’s scheme as the foundation of his great encyclopedia; Jefferson would later adopt it as the basis for organizing his own personal library, the foundation for the Library of Congress; and, Melvil Dewey would acknowledge it as an influence on his decimal system."

Ch. 8. The encyclopedic revolution

Diderot’s encyclopedia mixed folk knowledge (cloth dying, metalwork, and glassware, etc.) with scripture, scholarship, and politics. Diderot’s encyclopedia was disruptive, but it presaged the French Revolution.

Ch. 9. The moose that roared

In 1787, while serving as ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson had the remains of a moose brought over from the New World. At that time, there were two views of the animal world: fixed and ordered according to Linnaeus, or, constantly changing and forming a continuum, according to George-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. While Darwin would later credit Buffon as an influence, Buffon believed that species could degenerate as well, and that North American species represent a weaker set in nature. Jefferson challenged Buffon’s theory of American degeneracy with the moose corpse he had brought over. Buffon ended up revising his theories.

Influenced by Bacon, Thomas Jefferson organized his great library by subject, as well as chronology. His hierarchical classification system extended five levels deep, echoing the structure of ancient folk taxonomies.

Ch. 10. The industrial library

The father of the modern catalog, Anthony Panizzi, Chief Librarian of the British Museum Library 1856-1866, devised a carefully constructed classification system that reflect the universalist ambitions of the British Empire at the height of its powers. In addition, he designed the catalog to show the relationships between particular books. Any book can be a particular edition of a work, and a part of complex web of editions and translations. A catalog user should be able to see all the relationships. This distinction between the physical book and the intellectual work has been the basis of library cataloging ever since. Panizzi’s approach was revolutionary– he wanted to open up the library beyond its traditional audience of privileged men of letters. Library users had to search the catalog on their own and request books by call number– a burden to some who were used to asking the librarian to do everything. But Panizzi was determined to open the catalog up to everyone. When the catalog was finally completed and published in the 1850s it became an enormously popular reference work in its own right.

The great American cataloger, Charles Ammi Cutter, saw the purpose of the catalog as serving "common usage," not just the needs of scholars. Cutter helped to popularize the card catalog, and he devised a system of subject classification that would develop into the Library of Congress Classification (LCC).

Melvil Dewey’s famous went beyond his Dewey Decimal System of classification. He founded the first library school in Columbia University, cofounded (with Cutter) the American Library Association, and developed many library standards and equipment, such as a standardized card catalog.

In the twentieth century, Panizzi’s separation of physical book and intellectual work would take on new meanings as librarians, especially those in special libraries, saw themselves as knowledge workers in a world where information-intensive industries and organizations required a clearinghouse for both acquired material and internally-produced documentation. Over time, this documentalist approach would become the basis for the digital library.

Ch. 11. The web that wasn’t

The Internet’s long forgotten forefather? Paul Otlet, who died in 1944 in Belgium was a bibliographer, pacifist, and entrepreneur. He had played a role in the forming of the League of Nations. He had imagined a new kind of scholar’s workstation:

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read … is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even by ten, if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously…. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library, and the televised book.

Otlet invented the term "links" to describe this new model of networked documents. Otlet wanted to go farther than what the Dewey Decimal Classification offered, which was access to a book, but no farther. He went on to develop the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC), now recognized as the first full implementation of a faceted classification scheme. In his masterwork Traité de documentation, he wrote that no document could ever be understood by itself, but that its meaning becomes clarified through mining its relationships with other documents. Otlet envisioned a system of associative trails between documents. This vision holds out the possibility of merging the formal ontologies of a top-down classification system with the bottom-up emergence of social networks.

Vannevar Bush, a prolific inventor and engineer, described an imaginary device called the Memex which captivated the imagination of many in 1945, after he published his landmark essay "As We May Think" in The Atlantic Monthly. He began musing about such a device in a 1933 essay in Technology Review called "The Inscrutable ‘Thirties":

The library, to which our professor probably turned, was enormous. Long banks of shelves contained tons of books, and yet it was supposed to be a working library and not a museum. He had to pore over cards, thumb pages, and delve by the hour. It was time-wasting and exasperating indeed…. The idea that one might have the contents of a thousand volumes located in a couple of cubic feet in a desk, so that by depressing a few keys one could have a given paper instantly projected before him, was regarded as the wildest sort of fancy.

Bush saw the technical challenges facing libraries as neglected because so much of the technological agenda was driven by corporate interests. While computers helped businesses, libraries were being left behind. He saw that a human-centered, individualistic computer revolution could not happen when the development of computers was driven by profit for businesses. Bush never saw his Memex as a tool for business. Even the personal computer revolution of the late 1970s and 1980s did not bring about all the benefits of the Memex. The associative trails did not work in a hierarchical file system. Even the web browser did not match the two-way authoring environment of the Memex, since a web browser is one-way, and content creation still has to be mediated through a remote service. A Memex-based web would mean that hyperlinks are permanent.

Ted Nelson in the 1960s was the anti-establishment force that furthered the development of the computer as a personal information tool. He coined the term ‘hypertext’ in 1965.

Influenced by Nelson, a Brown University team in 1967 developed the File Retrieving and Editing System (FRESS). While the interface was primitive, the underlying hypertext system had features that the Web does not have today. A link from one document to another would always create a reciprocal link. Free-from keywords ("tagging" as we know it now) allowed users to create their own idiosyncratic met structure for document collection.

As hypertext systems continued to be developed for the Web, some interesting scholarship was done comparing hypertext to the literary scholarship of deconstruction. A key figure was George P. Landow, who, in his book Hypertext, promoted the idea of replacing conceptual systems founded on ideas of center, margin, hierarchy, and linearity, and replace them with ideas of multi-linearity, nodes, links, and networks.

Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization (Parallax: Re-visions of Culture and Society) by George P. Landow Hypertext 3.0, by George P. Landow

The history of the Internet in the early 1990s intersects with my own discoveries of this wonderful new tool of information access. I remember Gopher, the nested menu browsing environment developed at the University of Minnesota. While the browsing was strictly hierarchical, the linked documents could be stored at any geographical location with a server.

In 1980, Tim Berners-Lee created the forerunner of the web browser called Enquire, based on the Victorian era almanac Enquire Within Upon Everything. Unfortunately, a hard disk crash wiped out all traces of that piece of software. In 1989, Berners-Lee released a new program: WorldWideWeb. It was designed for the NEXT platform, developed by Steve Jobs between his stints at Apple. I remember my excitement at seeing a NEXT computer at the University of Western Ontario.

When I was in library school in 1989 I had an Internet account which allowed me to have access to e-mail, telnet, gopher, ftp, and Usenet newsgroups. I was hooked. After leaving school, and with my student access expiring after six months, I was desperate to get Internet access again. Dial-up BBSs and CompuServe helped, but when an Internet Service Provider in Ottawa, Ontario put out an ad for beta testers in early 1993, I jumped at the opportunity. I remember installing a very primitive set of web tools, with a web browser that crashed frequently. Looking back now over many years I knew I had used Mosaic, followed by Netscape, but I think I had used an even earlier Windows-based web browser called Cello (Mosaic for Windows was not released until December 1993, so I must have used Cello for a brief time– although I think only CERN, NASA, and the Vatican had any web sites of interest at the time).

Interestingly, Alex Wright in his book Glut, mentions that some of the leaders of the Web world are disappointed with the current state. Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee have expressed some despondent views. Some current limitations: "the evanescence of Web links, the co-opting of hypertext by corporate interests, and the emergence of a new "priesthood" of programmers and gatekeepers behind the scenes who still exert control over the technological levers powering the commercial Web."

Ch. 12. Memories of the Future

This chapter begins with a great quote from John Donne (from "An Anatomy of the World"):

And new Philosophy calls all in doubt,
The Element of fire is quite put out;
The Sun is lost, and th’earth, and no mans wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that this world’s spent,
When in the Planets, and the Firmament
They seek so many new; then see that this
Is crumbled out again to his Atomies.
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation.

Alex Wright makes the point that the Web may be actually reflect ancient dispositions toward spoken language. The Web is not just about "publishing" but about "talk".

Difference between oral and literate cultures… "Oral traditions are additive rather than subordinative, aggregative rather than analytic, empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced, and situational rather than abstract." An example is Amazon where expert, literate, and authoritative reviews appear alongside "talk" reviews and ratings from customers. We look at customer feedback such as ratings for their additive and aggregative values.

What is the role of the library for oral and literate cultures? A lot of the discussion around Web 2.0 and Library 2.0 is about the values of participation and consensus — patterns of information development that may have existed in oral cultures. The future of libraries may be about achieving a balance between fixity and fluidity in the organization of information. The information systems of the future may have to reflect the reality that people thrive when both hierarchies and networks are in place.

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