Alex Wright is the Head of User Experience at Google News. He’s also an author, and his most recent book, Informatica, is the second edition of Glut, his deep history of the information age. In this conversation, we discuss the history of information technologies and why learning about it matters to people who work in tech.
- Alex Wright
- Alex Wright (@alexgrantwright) / X
- Alex Wright - LinkedIn
- Informatica: Mastering Information through the Ages by Alex Wright
- Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age by Alex Wright
- Paul Otlet - Wikipedia
- S. R. Ranganathan - Wikipedia
- Charles Ammi Cutter - Wikipedia
- Melvil Dewey - Wikipedia
- Anthony Panizzi - Wikipedia
- Universal Decimal Classification - Wikipedia
- Vannevar Bush - Wikipedia
- The Printing Press as an Agent of Change by Elizabeth Eisenstein book
- The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook by Niall Ferguson
- Carl Linnaeus - Wikipedia
- Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon - Wikipedia
- Betamax - Wikipedia
- Walkman - Wikipedia
- Apple II - Wikipedia
- The Futures Cone, use and history – The Voroscope
- Institute for the Future
- Claude Shannon - Wikipedia
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This episode's transcript was produced by an AI. If you notice any errors, please get in touch.
Jorge: Alex, welcome to the show.
Alex: Thanks, Jorge. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here.
Jorge: I’m excited to have you here. I think it’s cool to recount the story of how this interview came to be. I reached out to you last year because I had recently read your book Glut, in preparation for my own book. And you wrote back and said, “that sounds like a great idea! But we should hold off.” Right? Because you have a new edition of the book and I’m excited that that’s come out now, so I’m excited to get into it. But before we do, some folks might not know about you and your work. How do you introduce yourself?
Alex: Sure. That’s a good question. I never quite know what to call myself. I’ve worn a bunch of different hats over the years. But broadly I’ve been working in the user experience world for a while, going back to the dark ages of the web. The early, like, Web 1.0 era. My first web job was working at IBM back in the mid nineties. But before that, in my pre-internet life, I worked as an academic librarian, for about six years. And then, I think like a lot of people in the early days of the web, made this kind of, transitioned into this new, weird, unknown world of internet stuff. And then sort of stumbled my way into what eventually became UX work.
So, I worked at IBM for a while first actually as a writer, editor, then eventually that morphed into being a design manager. I worked on the early ibm.com website. And then, I got the bug to go out west around 1999 as part of the first dot com gold rush, and went out and worked at a series of agencies — startups — doing UX work, UX design, research, writing.
I think at that time everything… the boundaries were a lot blurrier between all these roles. So, I did a number of different projects out there. I worked on a couple of startups, worked in some big tech companies, this, that, and the other thing; some nonprofits. And then, eventually, I drifted back to the East coast and ended up working at the New York Times for several years where I worked first as an information architect on the Times website. So the first and an early version of the Times mobile app; the iPhone app. And then I’ve done this, that, and the other thing since then. I did a stint at Etsy for a while, which was really fun. I’ve worked at Instagram. These days, I’m at Google.
And along the way, I’ve written a few things. Some articles, a couple of books. So, I always liked Buckminster Fuller’s line when somebody asked him to describe himself: “I’m not a noun and I seem to be a verb.” I kind of just try to avoid pigeon-holeing myself too much, but I don’t know. I’m kind of figuring it all out, stumbling through things.
Jorge: I love that Bucky Fuller phrase; I’m glad you brought it up. I can very much relate to the trajectory you’re describing there. I think that we are more or less contemporaries, and have been in the industry for that time, and it does feel like we came into it at a time when there were fewer boundaries between roles and there was a little bit more leeway in crafting your own role in the grammar of the profession, to the Bucky thing.
Alex: Yeah, I get a little nostalgic for those days when people… none of us really knew quite what we were doing, and that was okay. And that kind of made it fun. But everyone… we were kind of making up job titles and trying different things and muddling our way through this. But now I feel like things are much more professionalized, which in a way is good. I think the professions have matured, the specialties are more defined, and people have a little more of a sense of how to do this stuff. But I still miss those early days when it was a little bit crazier and fun.
Jorge: I get the sense from listening to you talk about your career that you’ve been exposed to lots of different aspects of the profession and maybe we’ll get into that, but I want to hone into the part where you said that you had written a couple of books because I’m especially interested in getting into… is it Informatica? Is that how you pronounce it?
Alex: That’s right. That’s the title of the second edition. We decided to change the title between editions.
Jorge: This is, I believe it’s your second book, right? No, your Glut.
Alex: That’s right. The second book was called Cataloging the World, and it’s about a guy named Paul Otlet, who was an a Belgian information scientist in the late 19th - early 20th century, who imagined something like the internet and the worldwide web back in the 1920s and 30s. So I just found his story really interesting. I talked about him a bit in the first book, and then I got so interested in it that I ended up writing a whole book about him. So…
Jorge: I haven’t read the, that second book, but I did get the sense that it was like pinching and zooming on one of the chapters in Glut, right?
Alex: In a sense that’s true, that’s right.
Jorge: But Informatica _is the second edition of _Glut, and it’s a book that I had long wanted to read. I’d only got around to it last year not knowing that there was a second edition coming out. And it totally delivered the goods. I was really excited by it. And I just read the second edition and I was like, “yes! It’s all there, and it’s brought up to date.” Folks listening in might not have read the book. What’s the synopsis? How do you describe what the book is about?
Alex: Sure. So 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. And, you know, the origin of the book. It really came from, kind of just scratching my own itch. I had been, as I mentioned, in a previous life, I worked in academic libraries. Then, I stumbled into the internet world.
And it was in the late nineties and, you know, at the time there was a lot of hype and excitement and the sense that the world was changing and there was this brand new revolutionary technology and suddenly there was going to be all this information. And it was this big problem and this big opportunity and what were we going to do with this information explosion that was happening? And I really wanted to just poke at that idea and say, is this really such a new thing?
And the question I really found myself wondering about was, were there interesting historical antecedents for this? Had this kind of thing happened before? And I think everyone, you know, people talk about the Gutenberg revolution. And that’s certainly, a fair corollary in some ways. And I talked about that a bit in the book, but there were a lot of other kind of interesting examples. And this really just came from my own… just finding my own path, wading into some source material and just, seeing what I could learn.
You know, well beyond Gutenberg, there have been a number of periods in history where some new disruptive technology has come along and created a kind of disturbance where suddenly there’s like more knowledge being produced and it has created different kinds of societal disruptions, new ways of knowing and understanding the world, new ways of organizing information.
And as I started tugging on that thread, it just kept taking me further and further back. So obviously there’s Gutenberg, but before that, there was kind of like even a pre-Gutenberg revolution in the Middle Ages where in the medieval monasteries they created some interesting like techniques for sort of producing books more quickly that led to its own little mini information explosion. You can go back to the classical world, to the great libraries of, Alexandria, Rome, Greece. And the ways that those civilizations worked with a kind of outpouring of new information and created new ways of organizing that information and cataloging it.
And so, anyway, I kept going further and further back. You can go back to ancient Sumaria. There’s interesting stuff that happened in China, in the Arab world, in Africa. There’s, interesting early libraries in places like Timbuktu and these things have come up over the years and then you go even further back. And what I found that was really interesting to me is even before the advent of writing in the ancient Middle East, around, 5,000 BC — even before then, there were ways that people banded together to make sense of the world around them.
And so, one of the things I look at is the heritage of what are called folk taxonomies, where tribal societies have ways of organizing their knowledge about plants and animals and the natural world that has this kind of interesting taxonomic structure that is embedded in language. And then you can go even further back and look at, interesting symbol systems and cave paintings and then eventually I even drifted further back into looking at some of the biological aspects of this which was super interesting.
But, at the end of the day, I didn’t start with some big thesis or hypothesis like you might if you were writing like a grad school dissertation or something. It was really just, as I say, just scratching my own itch and being curious about this history that I felt was a little bit under explored just because, I think something about the advent of the internet has brought some of these issues into focus and given us a way of framing our understanding of things like information and knowledge management that maybe gives us a new way of thinking about what came before this.
So that was really where it came from. It was really a, kind of a very organic journey for me just to look into some stuff that I found interesting.
Jorge: And that’s one of the reasons why I latched on so much to the book. And I was telling you before we started recording that the first time that I became aware of your work was in 2007 at one of the information architecture conferences where you were talking about the material that is in the first edition of Glut, specifically about Paul Otlet. And the thing that I found so valuable about hearing about that perspective is that it contextualized the work, right? It made it feel like, yes, this is new and exciting and it does feel like in many ways it’s up-ending the world, all of this stuff that we’re working on, but like you were saying, it’s not the first time that a new information technology has up-ended the world, right? So, I found it very valuable.
Otlet’s prescient vision
Alex: Yeah. That’s great to hear that! I think the Paul Otlet story… obviously I think it’s interesting, but there is, I think, a very direct corollary to what’s happening now. Which is that really the period he was living in at the end of the 19th century was really, in a way, the beginnings of the modern information age. It was the beginning of mass media, of the kind of industrial production of books and magazines and, the new technologies of that era, like steam powered printing presses and you know, the advent of cheap printing materials that enabled people to create popular novels and daily newspapers and all kinds of written material; corporate documents and reports and things.
That was a big deal. That was actually, you know, a sea change from what the world had been like before when, if you looked at the sort of 400 years after Gutenberg, printing didn’t really change that much during that period. And it was really… printing a book was much as Gutenberg was, of course, kind of a revolutionary innovation, it was still quite time-consuming to produce a book. It was mostly a manual process where you set type and then you could like hand crank these pages one by one and stitch them together. And it was, certainly faster than copying manuscripts by hand.
But suddenly, when that whole process became industrialized and mechanized, it created a huge outpouring of published information that people were really like struggling with. And if you read the literature at the time, there was a lot of concern in the scholarly community about like just this kind of tower of babble effect. Like, so much information being produced. How could anyone possibly make sense of this? And people like Paul Otlet and other folks I talk about in the book, like Ranganathan, the great Indian library cataloger, Charles Cutter, Melville Dewey, of course. This was where modern library cataloging techniques started to evolve. Sir Anthony Panizzi of the British Library and other people started to figure out, “oh! We need new systems for organizing all this stuff because it’s just getting out of control.”
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.
Jorge: Yeah! And to emphasize the point, the sense I got from reading your book is that what Otlet was talking about was not something like a card catalog in a library where like you’re indexing the books. It was more like he’s indexing ideas in the books. It was more granular, right?
Alex: That’s right. So he created this new cataloging system, which is still in use in Europe, called the Universal Decimal Classification. And it was a much more nuanced and powerful way of cataloging information beyond just assigning a subject to things. He came up with this really interesting… what you might call like a semantic markup, where you could be very fine grained in the way you described what was inside a book. You could say, “hey, this is a book that juxtaposes this topic with that topic.” And then he had all these little kind of markings you could add that would say, this document agrees with this document, or disagrees with this one, or references this other thing, and you can mash up different topics and stitch them together.
So it was a very, very powerful way of thinking about a cataloging system that was much more ambitious than the ones that had come before. There’s a lot of relationships… a lot of interesting parallels, actually, with Ranganathan’s faceted classification system as well.
Jorge: Well, and to locate folks, we’re talking about pre-digital technology, right? Like, they were early 20th century, so dealing with index cards, basically.
Alex: Yep. That’s right.
Jorge: One of the things that this speaks to I think… well, and to call out another person who’s profiled in the book, Vannevar Bush, right? And I never know if it’s pronounced van-NO-var or van-NEE-var.
Alex: Apparently somebody told me it’s van-NEE-var. I always thought it van-NO-var too, but apparently the correct pronation is van-NEE-var.
Jorge: Yeah, I always forget. But it does feel like Otlet was a predecessor there. And, you know, Bush’s work is widely acknowledged as a predecessor. I think Otlet less so. Like, I learned about Otlet through your work; I had heard about Bush in lots of places. But one of the things that this points to is something that strikes me as foundational to the book and perhaps like a foundational distinction in information management — in information science, in general — and it’s where you start the book. It’s a distinction between what you call networks and hierarchies.
Jorge: And you alluded to earlier the kind of biological origins of all of this. Would you mind unpacking this distinction of networks and hierarchies for folks?
Networks and hierarchies
Alex: Sure. Yeah, and this really emerged as one of the kind of organizing themes of the book. As I said, I didn’t really go in with a big, like, hypothesis or thesis or argument I was trying to make, I was really just kind of exploring this terrain. But what emerged over the course of my research was there did seem to be this kind of interesting pattern that you see over and over again when these new disruptive technologies emerge, they often seem to happen at this kind of point of conflict between networked systems that tend to be flat, associative ways of organizing information.
For example, you could think of oral cultures as being very networked. Like, people tend to know people who know people. And information flows in a very kind of loose way through networks of association. And a lot of people think the web is like that. Or at least the early version of the web was very much just hyperlinks and everything is just kind of a big bowl of spaghetti that just keeps going, as opposed to more hierarchical systems where things are organized in a kind of top-down way, where there’s kind of a top level category and then a subcategory and a subcategory and subcategories under that all the way down.
And this became a theme that sort of emerged over time as like, there is this kind of interesting dance between these kinds of archetypes. And you can see it over and over again in the kind of tension between… you know, for example, if you look at the Gutenberg era, you could say that there was a very entrenched, hierarchical knowledge management regime that was basically administered by the Roman Catholic Church, where knowledge was tightly controlled and the way it was controlled was very closely interrelated with the organizational hierarchy of the Roman church and sort of government hierarchy. And knowledge was handed down, organized into very tightly, constrained kind of categories.
And then along comes Gutenberg and hot on his heels comes Luther, with the Protestant Reformation. And there’s a great book by Elizabeth Eisenstein that talks about this, about how really the Lutheran Revolution was powered by the printing press. And suddenly, there was this technology that enabled people to publish information outside of the auspices or the oversight of the Catholic Church. And Luther comes along with his 99 theses and then revolution starts, and suddenly it’s much more of a peer-to-peer flow of information happening. And it became like a kind of paradigmatic challenge to the power of the Catholic Church and led to lots of bloodshed and revolution and all kinds of things. All kinds of challenging things happened, but it was a really like period of intense societal disruption that was also like a disruption in the flow of information in the world.
In the early days of the web, people made similar claims that, you know, the web — this new powerful network technology — is going to disrupt the existing gatekeepers and the kind of knowledge bureaus, which I think has turned out to be true. It created a ton of disruption for, existing kind of knowledge brokers like publishers and record companies and broadcast networks… like everything is much more like fluid now. But at the same time, what you also see in this kind of like back and forth dynamic is often new hierarchies often emerge out of these network systems.
And some people would say that we’re seeing that now where there was one point in the web when everything was flat and loose and then a new kind of structure emerges around that. Some people would say that maybe that has something to do with the rise of big tech companies. There is this kind of tendency for new hierarchical systems to emerge and then they in turn sometimes get disrupted over time by new networks.
So I have started to explore that kind of dynamic a bit. And it’s interesting. Since then, I think there’s a really good book, by Niall Ferguson, The [Square] and the Tower that actually talks about this exact topic of networks and hierarchies I would definitely recommend. I wish he’d written that book first, because it would’ve been a great reference point for my book. But you know, I think I’m not the only one to make this argument, but it definitely plays out you know, through the narrative in my book as well.
Jorge: Well, it did come across as a running thread throughout the book, this idea that there are these more bottom-up structures and then these more hierarchical structures, and moreover, there seems to be a drive to produce these hierarchical structures both to make sense of the information in the world, or the world as represented through the information in it, right? And also as kind of sort of way of controlling people’s perception of the world.
Jorge: And with that in mind, I was hoping you’d tell us — or tell listeners; I already know the story — why Thomas Jefferson brought a decomposing moose carcass to Paris.
Jefferson, a dead moose, and hierarchical information
Alex: That’s one of my favorite anecdotes in the book. It’s such a weird story. In the late 18th century, this was the period during which sort of modern, biological, taxonomic classification was becoming a thing. So, people like Linnaeus, who a lot of people have heard of, who created the kind of classification system that’s largely used in biology today, like a version of it. But there was also this Frenchman named Comte de Buffon, who was also proposing a classification system. And he had this interesting concept of natural hierarchy’ that there was a natural hierarchy to species and to peoples and sort of civilizations.
It was a fairly, I would say, imperialistic view of the natural order of things. And he had basically made the argument that European civilization was inherently superior because if you looked at the natural world, all of the biggest, best animals were kind of in Europe or something, or the flora and fauna — the richness of it — and all that. And that all these other countries, like the New World, was inherently inferior because it didn’t have big animals or the same variation and the people were primitive. And so, Europe was at the top of the hierarchy there.
And so, I’m way oversimplifying the argument, but Thomas Jefferson at the time was the ambassador to France, living in Paris, and he decided that he wanted to challenge that view. And the way he came up with to do that was to pull this amazing stunt where he basically had a moose — a dead moose — stuffed and preserved and shipped over from America to Paris and had it displayed in public in Paris to show that the Americas were capable of producing large mammals just like anyone else, and therefore the new world should be considered you know, on equal footing with the old world! And apparently it got people’s attention, so…
Jorge: Yeah, it’s a great story and to me it was illustrative of this idea that he who controls the categorization scheme somehow controls the narrative, right? And it felt like Jefferson was trying to influence, the perception of… Like saying, the validity of this hierarchical structure simply by producing physical evidence, even in what might be a rough and tattered state at the time, right?
Alex: Mm-hmm. Exactly.
Jorge: I want to circle back to this idea that technologies — particularly really disruptive technologies, technologies that introduce some kind of like major change in the world — are not always a net positive, right? Or rather, maybe that’s too pessimistic a take on it. Maybe the read is something like: the outcomes are always twofold, right? There’s both good and bad. And I’m going to cite something back to you from the book.
So I’m quoting now: you say, “we might do well to remember that throughout human history, the information technologies that mattered most rarely left halcyon outcomes in their wake. More often, they left trails of disruption. Burned out libraries, once civilized nations regressing into illiteracy, and episodes of blood curdling violence.”
That seems to be one of the big takeaways from this history of information technology, that big disruptions… like you said, the printing press brought in its way greater literacy and in some ways the modern world, but it also brought the religious wars, this upheaval in Europe. And I’m curious about your take on the major disruptions that we’re living through now, like we, I mean, like we alluded to earlier in the conversation. We’ve been now a few decades into the internet revolution. Do you feel — with your perspective in history — like you have a read on where things might be going? Is this a net good or is it more ambiguous?
Where are things heading?
Alex: Yeah, so I’m always like very reluctant to try to predict any future that might happen. I feel like I’m in much safer ground talking about the past. But I will say that when I wrote the first edition of the book, I feel like we were still in a period of relative optimism about the internet. I think there was still a lot of excitement and kind of a utopian zeal around what was happening. That, “oh! This is going to be revolutionary!” You know, “information wants to be free!” We’re going to upend all the old hierarchies and it’s going to be this brave new world of all these new businesses. Out with the old, in with the new and let’s see what happens!
And I think, in the 15 years since then, the conversations have shifted. I think people have started to acknowledge the more complex and sometimes problematic effects of this technology. That it has created, some fairly painful disruptions. If you look at what’s happened in the media landscape and a lot of legacy industries, the changes in the… a simple example would be the recording industry, or you could certainly talk about how things have evolved in the news industry. And beyond the media landscape, certainly massive changes in supply chains and the global networking of manufacturing and commerce and… you know, it’s a complex picture.
I think it’s over simplistic to say “it’s good” or “it’s bad.” It’s certainly disruptive, and I think now people have a much more sanguine view of what’s going on, that there are some problematic things that we need to think about. And now, with the rise of AI, everyone’s like, “Uh oh. What is this going to be all about? This could be amazing. It could be the end of mankind as we know it.” Like, nobody really knows. But certainly, I think all kinds of cautionary tales. But also if you take the example of Gutenberg, was that a net good for society? Or was it… again, like at the time, a hundred years after Gutenberg, I would say it was a very mixed bag. Like, a lot of really difficult things had happened, you know? There had been a lot of like societal disruption and warfare and bloodshed.
And then, I think today, most people would say, “oh, that was a good thing for humanity.” Probably? I don’t know. But it’s hard to say. I mean, I’m a bit of an optimist by nature, but I think also it’s way too early. We should keep in mind that, even though a lot of folks who maybe listen to this podcast, have — more or less — grown up with the internet, it’s still relatively in its infancy. I mean, it’s astonishing how quickly it spread. But we’re really only, what, 25-odd years into the really commercial, popular version of the internet? And I think we’re just at the cusp of a next wave of things that’s going to be really interesting.
But historians tend to — and I don’t call myself a historian — but professional historians tend to be very leery of talking in historical terms about things that have happened in the last 20 years. Usually you want to get like a good half century between you before you start really drawing too many conclusive statements about what just happened. So I think we’re still in the thick of it. But it’s certainly interesting to see it up close.
Jorge: Well that’s definitely fair. And even with Gutenberg, I get the sense that it took a while for the medium to settle as well, right? Like so not just the impact, but the medium itself wasn’t fully fleshed with those first printed books.
You mentioned folks listening in who might have been born, after the internet got rolling. What’s your best pitch for folks entering the field now to read your book. And by read your book, I mean learn about the history of this of writ large. Why should they spend the time doing that?
Looking backward to look forward
Alex: Mm-hmm. That’s a totally fair question. And I think that there is clearly a tendency, especially in the technology industry where I’ve worked, mostly for the last couple of decades, there is a tendency to deprecate the past very quickly. The whole industry is built on this concept of planned obsolescence. That’s the term that I think IBM famously came up with in the sixties, where basically you’re intentionally trying to constantly sell people on the new new thing. And that’s what drives the stock price up. And that’s what drives the press cycle. And that’s what gets people to buy new products and things. And so, the whole industry is predicated around this idea of there’s always a new thing around the horizon.
So, why should you care about the things? Why would anyone care about Betamax or, like a Sony Walkman, or… Things that are not really useful today. Or old Apple 2 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 I think 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.
In fact, speaking of the Sony Betamax, that was universally acclaimed as the best video tape, video recording technology at the time. It didn’t win in the marketplace. But, lots of interesting things to learn there. And I think certainly if you look at the… one of the things I, you know, poke at in the book is the history of hypertext systems that came before the web. Many of them were much more sophisticated and powerful and interesting than the web. Which is really in some ways as powerful as it is, is built on a kind of lowest common denominator set of protocols that make it very easily accessible.
But 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 like foresight or strategic foresight studies or like futuring, people often talk about the… if you’ve ever heard of the futures cone, it’s this idea of you know, 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. Like there’s a lot of divergent possibilities in the past. And actually by grounding your… if you ever do a kind of featuring workshop, one of the interesting exercises that can be really powerful to do: there’s a group called Institute For The Future at Palo Alto that likes this technique. It’s called “Look Back to Look Forward.”
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.
Jorge: That’s good. I’ll add one more. I always find it valuable to understand first principles. And one of the things that your book helped me clarify is this distinction between networks and hierarchies and how it plays out through the history of information technology. So that’s also a reason I might suggest that folks might want to check it out. And for folks who do, where can they find out more? Where can they follow up with you?
Alex: Yeah, well, I’m on all the channels. I have a website, alexwright.com. You can find me there. And if you look there, you can find me. I’m on Twitter and LinkedIn and all the things. And if anyone’s interested in buying the book, it’s out, the new edition just came out actually this week from Cornell University Press, and you can get it on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powell’s, wherever you like. The title is Informatica: Mastering Information Through The Ages.
And I always love to hear from people. One of the reasons I wrote the second edition was I got a lot of great feedback from people who had read the book, who chimed in and said, “Hey! You didn’t talk about Claude Shannon!” Or, “Why didn’t you talk about this person?” or “have you looked at this book?” And I had a bunch of that, so I was like, “oh yeah! You’re right.” Or, you know, there’s a typo or something like that. So I was like, really like… I welcome feedback! I love to hear from people and hear how they’re reacting to it or, I’d love to hear any thoughts, comments, rebuttals… always interested in hearing from folks about what they think.
Jorge: Well, it was great to revisit the material in the book. And just because I had read the first edition so relatively recently, I could see the evolution of it now reading the second edition. So yeah! The feedback… you know, you can tell that there’s been changes made, but the spirit of the book is still there! And ideas like this distinction between networks and hierarchies are very clear, and I found it very valuable. So thank you.
Alex: Well, thank you. I’m so glad to hear that and thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really enjoyed this conversation. It’s been great!
Jorge: Oh, thank you. It’s been a pleasure and a privilege.