Thursday, 16 July 2009

"Glut" by Alex Wright

The Sydney UX Book Club is going to discuss Glut at the next meeting so I've been reading it. Here's a few comments and quotes:

It immediately seems a more balanced book than Everything is Miscellaneous, giving more credence to the value of hierarchical information structures.
  • "The fundamental tension between networks and hierarchies has been percolating for eons. Today, we are simply witnessing the latest instalment in a long evolutionary drama." (p. 7)
  • Taking this tension back to genetics and cultural evolution, however, seems to be stretching the idea too far.
"Population density appears to determine the velocity of technological change." (p. 17)
  • The Ice Age 40,000 years ago forced people to live closer together and gave the impetus for a whole range of new symbolic behaviours. Social proximity lead to more complex forms of communication and that in turn supported more complex social structures. (40)
  • Early forms of art at the same time act as a counter-example to the normal view that art arises as a luxury in the easy time. In fact, art is a necessity when a society experiences hardship. (45)
The Sumerian city of Uruk (very close to Abraham's Ur) was perhaps the first "city". The population density in about 5000 BC lead to trade and specialisation.

The first known bibliography was a list of documents kept in the Hittite government archives (from another source I think that was around 1300 BC, around the time of Judges in the Bible).

Great Library at Alexandria (70):
  • Established 300BC
  • 700,000 works
  • Initially had no catalog
  • A later catalog had two major divisions -- poetry and prose -- within which authors were listed alphabetically.
  • No one knows when the library was destroyed
Monastic copying of the Bible during the Dark Ages originated in Ireland with a clearly missionary intent. The books were not to be kept in the monastery but distributed by missionaries. (84)

Protestantism is left-brained whereas Catholicism is right-brained. Protestantism, right from Luther's reliance on the printing press, emphasises the written word over the image. (118)

Thomas Jefferson contributed quite a bit to naturalism and was an early supporter of the Linnaean classification system. He considered it a higher honour to be president of the American Philosophical Society than president of the USA. (161)

Wright makes an impressive connection between the stigmergy in the insect world and links in the WWW. Even prior to the Internet, Bush and Otlet saw the meta-data of links being central to the web of knowledge. As people establish and navigate the associative trails between knowledge chunks, the trails themselves become an interesting item to study (199). I don't think Wright mentions it, but Google's PageRank is doing just that: analysing the stigmergy of hyperlinks.

Criticisms of the WWW:
  • Hyperlinks are uni-directional. It didn't have to be that way, and some predecessors of the Web had naturally bi-directional links. (218, 220)
  • Web browsers are limited to viewing, whereas other proposals would have more naturally balanced viewing and editing (consuming and producing). (228 and earlier) [This editing ability is of course now being retro-fitted via Wikis, blog comments, Google Wave etc.]
  • The Web still carries the legacy of the printed page (229), a woefully inadequate 2-dimensional concept.
Interesting comments on the relationship between post-modernism in literary criticism with Internet publishing (221ff).

On pages 223 and 228, Wright describes modern computing and the Web as profoundly humanist. I don't know what he means by that.

"Twenty years after Johannes Gutenberg invented his printing press, a bare handful of people in Germany and France had ever seen a printed boook. Less than 20 years after its invention, the World Wide Web has touched billions." (229)

Like previous advances in information technology, the Internet has triggered a conflict between literacy and orality (231). The Internet is evolving into a mechanism that allows people to express themselves informally and without the constraints of institutions. The result is far more like an oral culture than a written one. That's an important and fascinating idea. I should not only re-read the final chapter a few times, but hunt down Wright's primary source: Ong, W. J., Orality and Literacy, Methuen, 1982.

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