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Tech Q&A

Alex Wright

Describe your latest project.
My book is about the history of the information age, exploring the ways that people have collected, organized and shared information over the years.

While today's "information explosion" may seem like a modern phenomenon, we are not the first generation to wrestle with the problem of information overload. Long before the advent of computers, human beings were collecting, storing, and organizing information: from Ice Age taxonomies to Sumerian archives, Greek libraries to Dark Age monasteries. Today, we stand at a precipice, as our old systems struggle to cope with what designer Richard Saul Wurman called a "tsunami of data." With some historical perspective, however, we can begin to understand our predicament not just as the result of technological change, but as the latest chapter in an ancient story that we are only beginning to understand.

The book explores a number of topics not typically brought together in one volume — evolutionary psychology, cultural anthropology, and the history of books, for example — and tackles a lot of seemingly far-flung topics like insect colonies, Stone Age jewelry, medieval monasteries, Renaissance encyclopedias, early computer networks, and the World Wide Web, to name a few. In the end, I try to pull these threads together to explore whether the future of the information age may lie somewhere deep in our cultural past.

  1. Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages
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    "[A] fascinating tour of the many ways that humans have collected, organized and shared information for more than 100,000 years to show how the information age started long before microchips or movable type." Publishers Weekly
What inspires you to sit down and write?
Writing for me has less to do with inspiration than with some kind of compulsion. I find the whole process quite difficult. When I was writing my book, what really kept me going was a chess clock, given to me by a friend. I would punch the clock every morning and write in one-hour sessions until I had met my quota of four hours' solid writing time a day. I treated it like a day job. If there was any inspiration along the way, that was gravy. The main thing was putting in the hours.

Describe your favorite childhood teacher and how that teacher influenced you.
I went to school in England for a couple of years as a kid, and when I got there I was way behind the other kids in Latin, which they had been studying since they were six years old. So the school set me up with a Latin tutor: Mr. Piper, who also happened to be the school's retired headmaster. He must have been well into his eighties, and he was totally blind. We would meet three days a week in an oversized closet (literally) because all the classrooms were full. He taught me about Latin grammar — Amo, amas, amat, and all that — but mostly we just talked: about war and politics, about the fading empire, and about how to live in the world. He was a wise and wonderful man, and I felt lucky to have known him. Mr. Piper loved Graham Greene, and he used to call me the "Quiet American."

Chess or video games?
I'm a terrible chess player, but a few years ago I had the opportunity to work backstage at the Kasparov vs. Deep Blue chess match. Kasparov never lost a match in his life, and once you saw him in person you could understand why. He was a formidable, intimidating guy who just radiated confidence. When he lost the first game to Deep Blue, he came storming backstage in a silent fury. You could feel the black air swirling around him. He was so crushed by the loss that he eventually accused the IBM team of cheating (it was a bum rap, by the way – he lost fair and square). But you had to feel for him anyway; it was such a John Henry moment.

What do you do for relaxation?
I meditate for about an hour a day. Sitting still and doing nothing is a lot harder than you might think, but it helps me settle down, focus, and sort out my own neurotic tendencies so I can be more available to other people. I'm not sure if "relaxation" is quite the right word for it; but I certainly find it worthwhile.

What was your favorite book as a kid?
Well, it's not exactly a kid's book, but when I was about twelve years old some friends of my parents gave me a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog. At the time, I had no idea who Stewart Brand or Kevin Kelly were; of course they went on to become seminal figures in the history of the World Wide Web. I just loved browsing through all the pages of listings for things like weird comics, build-it-yourself yurts, and sex toys (though at the time I had only the vaguest notion of what one might actually do with them). I liked the way you could just jump in anywhere. The book had no real beginning or end; it was designed for random access. There was a section on "whole systems" with entries for forests, deserts and oceans, listed right alongside the entries for robots, computers and portable canoes. It was like opening this fantastic window into a universe of possibilities that seemed so far removed from the suburban TV-land where I was growing up. Of course, as a twelve year-old boy, I was mostly interested in looking at the sex toys.

If you could be reincarnated for one day to live the life of any scientist or writer, who would you choose and why?
Buckminster Fuller is one of my major intellectual heroes. Apart from his engineering genius, he was an original thinker who refused to let anyone pigeonhole him into a narrow discipline. He railed against the way contemporary industrial society tends to reduce people to specialists. He never let anyone fix labels on him — you could call him an engineer, a philosopher, a poet — but none of those terms could quite capture him. As he put it: "I don't know what I am, I know I am not a category. I am not a thing — a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process — an integral function of the universe."

What are some of the things you'd like your computer to do that it cannot now do?
I would like it to disappear. Computers are still weighed down with all these remnants of the typewriter era — like keyboards and screens. I would like to see my computer shrink to the point where it's almost invisible. While I imagine keyboards and screens will be around for a long time to come, I expect we'll see new kinds of computers emerge as voice and gestural interfaces and (probably) holographic displays come into their own. Eventually, we should see new kinds of information systems emerge that may bear little resemblance to the glorified typewriters we all use today.

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