Making Sense of It All
GLUT:Mastering Information Through the Ages.By Alex Wright.Joseph Henry Press.296 pp. $27.95
To the modern mind, the verb “compute” signifies a murky electronic process—blinking lights, the hum of a processor, possibly the scrolling of digits across a screen. But before the 20th century the word had a very different connotation, namely, to count, reckon, or impose order on information. Alex Wright, an information architect and former Harvard librarian, argues that we’ve outsourced so much processing, storing, and retrieving of information to machines that we’ve come to see information technologies as mysterious, thoroughly modern innovations. In Glut, he sets out to show that if we resist the tendency of the technorati to look only into the future, we can see that we’ve been in an information age of sorts all along.
Inventions such as Sumerian tablet writing in the third millennium BC and the Phoenician alphabet in approximately the 10th century BC testify to humankind’s innate ability to organize data. The original purpose of the familial order of the Greek Pantheon (Cronus begat Zeus, who begat Athena) was not to imbue stories with familial drama but to help orators recall the sequential details of their epics. Exotic accounting tools such as the Incan quipu—long pieces of intricately knotted rope—were once thought to be simple ledgers; new evidence suggests that they served as historical chronicles as well, and perhaps even stored gossip.