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Episode 120 of The Informed Life podcast features a conversation with Alex Wright. Alex is the Head of UX at Google News and author of two history books. It’s the latter that brought him to the show: he just published Informatica: Mastering Information Through the Ages, the second edition of Glut, his deep history of information management. As Alex described it,

the book tries to take a pretty broad view of the history of information systems, I guess you could say. Really looking at the ways that people have collected, organized, distributed information over a fairly long span of time.

Fairly long is right: the book traces information management from our distant pre-literate ancestors to the present. As societies grow more complex, people invent new means of organizing information. Major technological changes (e.g., the movable type printing press) bring both great advances and social upheaval.

Some developments, such as the printing press, are widely recognized. Others are more obscure. Alex mentioned the work of Paul Otlet, a significant (yet relatively obscure) entrepreneur whose work in the first half of the Twentieth Century prefigures some aspects of the internet:

I think what was interesting about Otlet particularly was he had a much more expansive vision of what this might all lead to. I think that for a lot of the librarians at that time, they were solving the problem in front of them, which was: too many books. What do we do with all these books? Where are you going to put them? How are people going to find these books? How can we catalog them in a way that people will be able to, do research, make them available, make sure that information is accessible. But what Otlet started to see – what he started to envision – was really step change in the way we might think about the forms that information might take.

And his big kind of fundamental insight that came when he was very young, I think he was like 23 when he wrote a book called “Something About Bibliography,” You know, it was a little essay. And he basically had the insight that, you know, the book is not the be all and end all of this problem. In fact, the book is maybe a kind of transitional technology, even though it’s been around for a long time. And what really interested him was the question of how do you get inside of the covers of books and really start to unearth the information inside of them and to create connections between documents and within documents so that you could think about, a much more kind of networked way of thinking about information.

And he began to think also about multimedia. Like, it’s not just about books. There were photographs starting to emerge at this time. Eventually, sound recordings! And then later in his life, audio and even television. He was like, well, really all this stuff, ultimately, is the universe of information that we need to be thinking about how to manage. And he eventually started to envision this idea of a kind of global network that stitched all his information together that would be connected electronically, that people would be able to access through little screens, which didn’t exist at that time. Like there were no cathode ray tubes or, microprocessors or disc drives or anything like that.

But he envisioned this global computer network that would eventually, you know, allow people to have access to something that sounds a lot like the internet when you read through it. And this was in like 1934, he was talking about this. So I just find his, like… he’s just a really like prescient thinker about the possibilities of what might happen someday.

You might be wondering, why would someone working today want to learn about this sort of stuff? I asked Alex this question, and he gave an insightful answer:

Why would anyone care about Betamax or, like a Sony Walkman, or… Things that are not really useful today — old Apple II computers? I think there are a couple of reasons. One, I just think it’s interesting, obviously; I wouldn’t have written a book about it otherwise. But more practically, I think there are a couple things.

One, there are lots of interesting ideas that were left by the wayside. That there’s no guarantee that just that… the best technology does not always win. And sometimes, the most interesting technologies are the ones that didn’t win. … There are a lot of interesting ideas that preceded that that I think by dusting off some of those ideas, sometimes that can be a source of inspiration and ideas that may still have legs. I think that’s one sort of practical to look at what came before.

I also think it’s important that as we think about the future… If you talk to people who do foresight or strategic foresight studies or futuring, people often talk about the… if you’ve ever heard of the futures cone, it’s this kind of widening aperture; the further out you look, the less predictable things are. One of the things futurists like to do is imagine possible futures. Like, there could be a range of possible things that happen and the further out you go, the more divergent those possibilities are. But I think you can take the same approach to looking at the past. There’s a lot of divergent possibilities in the past…

By having a longer historical view, it actually tends to extend our time horizons in both directions. So, by thinking more about the past, it sets us up to think more about a long-term future and to challenge ourselves to think more expansively and ambitiously about what might come by having the sense of a wider aperture to think about rather than just thinking about the here and now or what’s coming out in the next cycle. So, those are, maybe a couple of reasons to spend a minute looking backwards for a bit.

My work is greatly influenced — and enhanced — by studying history. If anyone wants to learn about the deep history of how people have organized information to get things done, Informatica is the book I’ll point them to. I was thrilled to discuss it with Alex; I hope you get as much value as I did from our conversation.

The Informed Life episode 120: Alex Wright on Informatica