Information architect Alex Wright talks about the lessons of IT history

The information architect talks about the lessons of computing history, the re-emergence of oral culture and all the data that Google doesn't index.

Alex Wright

Alex Wright

Alex Wright is a writer and information architect at The New York Times and the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, a reflection on the current state of IT and its roots in history.

He has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Harvard Magazine and other publications. He has led research and design projects for Harvard University , IBM , Microsoft, The Long Now Foundation, the Internet Archive and Yahoo.

Do IT professionals pay too little attention to history?

There is a tendency in computer science to ignore history. The German philosopher and programmer Werner Kunzel said, "Computer theory is currently so successful that it has no use for its own history." There is this tendency to fixate on the future of IT, and the IT industry -- so driven by new releases and product innovation -- encourages that. We are always encouraged to look forward, sometimes at the expense of developing any sort of perspective on how we got here.

Can you give an example of the kind of thing we might learn from IT history?

If you look at the history of hypertext that preceded the Web, there were some very promising ideas that were left by the wayside. If you look at the work of people like Ted Nelson or Doug Engelbart or Andries van Dam, you'll find some really interesting alternate ways of thinking about how networked information systems could work. Especially Ted Nelson. He laid out an incredibly thoughtful vision of how hypertext would work. His great project, Xanadu, has some important ideas in there. One was the idea that all hyperlinks should be bidirectional. When you get to a document, you should be able to see not only what it points to, but also what points into it. That can add an important layer of meaning. You can even trace that idea back to Vannevar Bush's famous essay "As We May Think," in 1945. [Unidirectionality] is a fundamental limitation of the Web today, but it's interesting to see how some developers have tried to approximate bidirectionality in things like TrackBack and Facebook.

Could we learn lessons from way back -- say, from hundreds of years ago?

If you look at scribes in the Middle Ages, they developed new forms of what you might call information technology in the form of illuminated manuscripts. There's a case to be made that they were an early form of hypertext. The scribes developed new tools for managing information inside books, things like tables of content and indexes. Eventually they came up with canon tables, which were basically visual indexes to the Bible. They'd take stories from each of the Gospels and cross-reference them in a visual index -- a kind of illuminated hypertext -- that gave you a way to scan the contents and move between related sections.

Is there a software interface idea floating around in there somewhere? Maybe. It's interesting to fish a little and look at these early ideas to see if they spark any ideas for today.

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