Derivative History

Mastering Information Through the Ages

Just today I finished reading a book that was found by chance and turned out to be a quite delightful read. It is "Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages" by Alex Wright (ISBN 978-0-309-10238-4). I found the book while perusing a bookstore last week in Sacramento. While being caught in a bookstore is not unusual for me, on this occasion I found myself in a section that I don't usually hover over. It was here that the bright orange cover leapt out at me.

Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages by Alex Wright

I say that the book was a delight because it is immanently readable, interesting because it surveys the long history of humanity's evolving quest to manage information, and surprising in that it conveys a thoroughly good-natured disposition towards the past. This latter point is notable because it is often missing in more recently published books (in truth it is not so novel a trend) where authors seem to think that the past was populated with complete dunderheads. You can probably guess what my opinion might be of this affected posture. Sometimes it is done out of simple ignorance of the past, which I somehow find easier to excuse. Sometimes it is done out of a desperate and somewhat cynical attempt to get attention, and presumably a readership, by feeding into what one might call the "infinite narcissism of the present".

Alex's book indulges in no such nonsense and instead conveys a variety of interesting stories that chronicle how ingeniously some of our collective efforts at managing information have been. In doing this, the book is what we might classify as a derivative history although I do not mean this in any way to be a detraction or a slight. It means that the works of other writers, typically historians, have been drawn upon liberally to lay out the landscape and across this landscape a story is told. By leveraging the works of others, this type of book can focus on telling a new, or slightly different, story. This is valuable. And when it is done, as it is in this case, with a general sense of respect for what others have done, then the results can be quite engaging.

I would contrast this book with another book that I read around the same time and on essentially the same topic - the fate of information classification practices in a rapidly changing world. This other work buried some worthwhile points under a mountain of politically correct contortions, unbearable academic posturing, and, yes, thinly disguised contempt for basically all contributors to the field other than the author.

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