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Networked

Glut Mastering Information Through the Ages Alex Wright Joseph Henry Press: 286 pp., $27.95

June 24, 2007|Sara Lippincott | Sara Lippincott is an assistant editor of Book Review.

REMEMBER the Borg? The ultimate villains -- or villain -- of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," they were a species that networked so prodigiously that they became as one and went on to assimilate every individual they encountered.

Is this where human society is headed? And how bad is that? These are questions that may cross your mind while reading Alex Wright's "Glut," a penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on our information age and its historical roots. Wright argues that now is the time to take a hard look at how we have communicated with one another since coming down from the trees, because "we stand at a precipice: between the near-limitless capacity of computer networks and the real physical limits of human comprehension" -- and the way we organize knowledge determines much about how we live.

The digital age has begun to dissolve information hierarchies in favor of a democratic system of networks, embodied most obviously in the Internet. But what will such a leveling produce? Early in the book, Wright notes the prediction of Catholic mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who, contemplating the advent of radio and television, "believed that this burgeoning networked consciousness signaled a new stage in God's evolutionary plan, in which human beings would coalesce into a new kind of social organism, complete with a nervous system and brain that would eventually spring to life of its own accord."

Well, that hasn't happened yet (despite the near-assimilation of millions of formerly autonomous HBO subscribers into the Soprano family), but might it? Wright attempts an answer by way of a careful examination of past information revolutions and their effects. Way past: He locates the origins of our species' ability to organize information (which he concisely defines as "the juxtaposition of data to create meaning") in the transition 2 billion years ago from unicellular life to eukaryotes, multicellular entities that incorporated "their formerly independent siblings into a kind of cellular serfdom."

After a nod to subsequent "self-directed biological hierarchies" (bird flocks, fish schools, ant colonies, beehives), Wright gets to Homo sapiens, claiming that the "similarities in human behavior among otherwise disparate cultures" suggests that we have inherited our tendency to systematize the world around us.

He embarks on a history of this systematization: the rise of kinship structures along with the categorization of natural phenomena, primitive methods of calculating (beads, sticks, stones), the invention of writing and on through 3,000 years of text collecting to the founding about 300 BC of the library at Alexandria, which at its peak housed some 700,000 items.

The papyrus scrolls of Alexandria gave way to "a new form of document: the codex book, so named because it originated from attempts to 'codify' the Roman law in a format that supported easier information retrieval." That is, you could flip through it, instead of unscrolling papyrus by the yard and scanning line after line. Random access was born, and with it fluency. One of the many odd nuggets to be found in "Glut" is that the first people to learn to read from books were the Irish, courtesy of St. Patrick in the 5th century AD, which may explain something about Joyce, Yeats, Synge, Shaw, et al. Indeed, noting the proliferation of illuminated manuscripts from newly literate Irish monks, Wright asks, "In the archetype of the Irish scribe ... can we recognize a distant ancestor of today's blogger?"

On his way to our bit-borne and unilluminated glut of knowledge, Wright pauses, of course, at Gutenberg and the little-known reproduction techniques preceding him (people punched tiny holes in manuscripts to speed their replication); the standardization of typefaces ("Roman type became the equivalent of ASCII type today") and the violence that followed the spread of literacy in Renaissance Europe. "Wherever the printing press took hold," he writes, "conflict seemed to follow ... a kind of mass social pathology that may have stemmed from the jarring introduction of a linear, left-brain communications mode of thought into what had previously been a predominantly oral and visual right-brained culture."

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