Mastering Information through the Ages

Alex Wright shows the many ways we have endeavored to manage an abundance of information, beginning with libraries and encyclopedias, running through taxonomies and folksonomies, and into networks which both eschew formal organization and evolve governing structures as they mature. The final chapter addresses the tensions between the old, literate cultures, and the new (or newly revived) oral culture of the the web, echoing the writings of Walter Ong.

Reading notes

A museum

The library of Alexandria served not as a place of creativity, but rather as a kind of well-kept tomb for the creativity of the past:

While scholars were under no obligation to pursue any particular discipline, they were nonetheless beholden to the patronage of the emperors. As the Alexandrian institution grew, it began to suffer from the curse of many a state educational organ: intellectual conservatism. The residents of the so-called museum were putatively free to pursue their intellectual interests, but royal patronage exerted a subtle and ultimately stultifying influence. None of the Alexandrian scholars, so far as we know, felt quite so free as to question the imperial system of government. Alexandria became a haven for scholarly sycophants, or, as Timon of Philius put it, a “chicken coop of muses.” As library historian Leslie W. Dunlap Writes, “The Museum typified the derivative culture of Alexandria: significant creations were rare indeed, but here the laurels of Greek civilization were kept green for seven centuries.” Indeed, given hundreds of years’ worth of munificent imperial support, perhaps the most remarkable thing about the library is how little original scholarship it actually ever produced.

Wright, Glut, page 72

Alexandria came to be the largest library of its time largely by force: works of literature were confiscated from any and all visitors. But in its supreme effort to collect, it failed to understand the purpose of a collection itself: to serve as fertile ground for new works. Perhaps, in the scheme of things, we are better off that such a library was lost.

A place to talk

Today, we are witnessing the reemergence in electronic form of oral patterns that have been hiding in plain site for generations. So deeply ingrained is our cultural disposition toward literacy, however, that many of us fail to recognize the oral characteristics of electronic media. Today, writers inevitably tend to describe the web in terms of “publishing” or, like H.G. Wells, to compare it to a vast library. And while the web does indeed support new kinds of publishing, it is also a place to “talk.”

Wright, Glut, page 232

Walter Ong calls this “secondary orality,” that is, orality which is written in the technical sense (via pecking at a keyboard) but which is fundamentally an element of oral culture. So, when you rant on Twitter about your coworker who can’t stop twirling her hair, or text your spouse to please pick up a bottle of wine on the way home, you’re engaging in an oral tradition, not a literate one.

Think that through, and it’s not surprising that replies emerged organically on Twitter and elsewhere; having a conversation means talking to other people. Absent the technical means to do that, we invented a method that was then widely, and rapidly, adopted.

Interestingly, with secondary orality, we have orality that looks like literacy, but isn’t. Strange things can happen when you miss that point. Flipboard aggregates content from your social graph in really lovely ways, but the juxtaposition of oral culture in an essentially literate design doesn’t always make sense. It’s quite odd to see your friend’s tweet about their breakfast burrito elevated to a strikingly designed pull quote. The pull quote is a design pattern that emerged from a culture of publishing—from a process by which an editor would carefully select a bit of text that, when extracted and enlarged, would resonate with the greater work. But here, there is no greater work, and no editor: only the blind act of an algorithm.

That algorithm knows a lot about who your friends are, and what they recommend, but it does not (yet, at least), recognize the difference between talking and publishing. The result is content that looks beautiful, typographically speaking, but whose effect is dissonant, rather than engaging. Designing for secondary orality is going to require developing new patterns, not merely pouring words into the old ones.


Melvil Dewey, creator of the eponymous Dewey Decimal system, had a particular vision of libraries:

Dewey saw the catalog, like the library, as in essence a great machine. By standardizing its operations—introducing interchangeable parts, establishing consistent standards and practices, and normalizing variations—he saw the hope for a more perfect system. Catalog cards, like librarians, would function as distributed cogs in a great national system of Dewey’s devising.

Wright, Glut, page 174


In hopes of recruiting more pliant librarians willing to follow directions and conform to his desire for implementing a centralized scheme, Dewey actively encouraged the recruitment of women into the profession. He believed that women were more likely to acquiesce to implementing his system rather than devising their own (Dewey was, by modern standards, an unreconstructed chauvinist). However offensive such statements might strike many of us today, his strategy seems to have worked, at least in part: Today, women make up the overwhelming majority of American librarians.

Wright, Glut, page 174

Perhaps even more offensive than Dewey’s sexism was his depiction of a static library—a library without any need for continued innovation. Dewey assumed that by his time, we had learned everything there was to know about the organization of knowledge, and so had no need to labor in that direction any longer. There’s about as much truth to that assumption as there is in the one that women are more compliant—which is to say, no truth at all.