Alex Wright spoke Friday night at the LongNow Foundation. Stewart Brand gives a summary of the talk.
As usual, microbes led the way. Bacteria have swarmed in intense networks for 3.5 billion years. Some two billion years ago a hierarchical form emerged with the first nucleated cells, which were made up of an enclosed society of formerly independent organisms.
That's the pattern for the evolution of information, Alex Wright said. Networks coalesce into heirarchies, which then form a new level of networks, which coalesce again, and so on. Thus an unending series of information explosions is finessed.
In humans, classification schemes emerged everywhere, defining how things are connected in larger contexts. Researchers into "folk taxonomies" have found that all cultures universally describe things they care about in hierarchical layers, and those hierarchies are usually five layers deep.
Family tree hierarchies were accorded to the gods, who were human-like personalities but also represented various natural forces.
Starting 30,000 years ago the "ice age information explosion" brought the transition to collaborative big game hunting, cave paintings, and elaborate decorative jewelry that carried status information. It was the beginning of information's "release from social proximity."
5,000 years ago in Sumer, accountants began the process toward writing, beginning with numbers, then labels and lists, which enabled bureaucracy. Scribes were just below kings in prestige. Finally came written narratives such as Gilgamesh.
The move from oral culture to literate culture is profound. Oral is additive, aggregative, participatory, and situational, where literate is subordinate, analytic, objective, and abstract. (One phenomenon of current Net culture is re-emergence of oral forms in email, twittering, YouTube, etc.)
Wright honored the sequence of information-ordering visionaries who brought us to our present state. In 1883 Charles Cutter devised a classification scheme that led in part to the Library of Congress system and devised an apparatus of keyboard and wires that would fetch the desired book. H.G. Wells proposed a "world brain" of data and imagined that it would one day wake up. Teilhard de Chardin anticipated an "etherization of human consciousness" into a global noosphere.
The greatest unknown revolutionary was the Belgian Paul Otlet. In 1895 he set about freeing the information in books from their bindings. He built a universal decimal classification and then figured out how that organized data could be explored, via "links" and a "web." In 1910 Otlet created a "radiated library" called the Mundameum in Brussels that managed search queries in a massive way until the Nazis destroyed the service. Alex Wright showed an astonishing video of how Otlet's distributed telephone-plus-screen
sysem worked (which should find its way onto YouTube soon.)
Wright concluded with the contributions of Vannevar Bush ("associative trails" in his Memex system), Eugene Garfield's Science Citation Index, the predecessor of page ranking. Doug Engelbart's working hypertext system in the "mother of all demos." And Ted Nelson who helped inspire Engelbart and Berners-Lee and who Wright considers "directly responsible for the generation of the World Wide Web."