Home > Book reviews, Professional activities > Book review: Alex Wright’s Glut: Mastering information through the ages

Book review: Alex Wright’s Glut: Mastering information through the ages

I recently finished reading Alex Wright’s book “Glut”, a highly-readable meta-history about information. It seeks to connect many centuries of advances in information management, categorization, communication, and sharing. This book is highlighted by ample examples and figures and images to aid with comprehension. Despite the title, the book is not so much about information overload as about finding ways to capture and share information–toward advancing a species (usually but not always humans) to a position of greater knowledge and understanding.

Alex Wright describes himself as an “information architect” with projects to his credit at places like IBM, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and Harvard. He’s done graduate work in usability engineering at UC Berkeley and in journalism at Harvard (where he also served as a librarian for a while), so he understands the technological and library-science aspects of mastering information. He’s authored articles in venues like interactions magazine, Boxes and Arrows, and the New York Times (where’s he’s an editor and frequent contributor). And he spent many of his formative years in the great state of Virginia.

Weighing in at only 238 pre-appendix pages, this book certainly does not seek to provide thorough coverage of the thousands of years of information history that are encompassed. As such, the author is accused by many reviewers of cherry-picking things of interest that support his arguments. However, that seems to be the prerogative of an author of this type of book–you can’t cover it all in this sort of meta-history, and there will always be an incompleteness in this sort of book. The author even acknowledges as much in the introduction, likening himself to a cartographer of old trying to draw a map of distant lands–and making the expected errors of omission and commission.

Much of the early parts of the book seeks to connect the ways that humans deal with information through biological and sociological arguments–which often come across as incomplete or unconvincing. I’m not at all sure that epigenetic rules drive our online classification systems of today, ice-age communities portend Internet-age chatrooms, and similar arguments from the early chapters seem like a bit of a stretch (or maybe it’s just incompletely argued, or maybe I’m missing something). I’ll certainly give the author credit for bringing up the possibility of connections, and some may prove correct with further study (however tenuous they seem in this book).

But the book got progressively better, and the last few chapters (the ones dealing with more glut-tonous problems) were really engaging. Wright covered visionaries like Cutter, Dewey, McLuhan, Otlet, Engelbart, Nelson, and Berners-Lee–comparing and contrasting their ideas and probing at why they were successful (or not) in pursuing their vision. I particularly like Wright’s focus on the arc of success for many of these visionaries, as he doesn’t merely touch upon their well-known work but instead looks at their paths to success, why they were successful, and why they failed. His final chapter, titled “Memories of the Future”, is a too-short connection of the themes of the book to recent and ongoing events in information management.

In summary, the book seems like a great fit for someone looking for a general book about information and library science–perhaps a good match for a professionalism in computing class, or an auxiliary reading for other computer science or HCI classes.

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