May 22, 2014
The Atlantic just published my essay on "The Secret History of Hypertext," an exploration of early European precursors to the Web in the era before Vannevar Bush famously proposed the Memex in 1945.
This article draws on material from my book, but I wanted to write an original piece that focused squarely on Bush's legacy, given his lasting influence over the trajectory of post-WWII computing. And the Atlantic seemed like the ideal venue, given the magazine's historic role in publishing Bush's "As We May Think."
Bush's essay is a beautifully crafted piece of technological soothsaying. But, as I suggest here, its influence has obscured the contributions of pioneers like Paul Otlet and H.G. Wells, who were thinking along the same lines well before Bush, and who have been largely overlooked in the traditional Anglo-American version of computing history.
Here's the full shpiel.
March 21, 2014
I'm pleased to announce the upcoming release of my next book, Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age, to be published in June 2014 by Oxford University Press.
This book has been in the works (off and on), for more than twelve years, ever since I first stumbled across an article by Boyd Rayward that referenced an obscure Belgian bibliographer who envisioned something like the Internet in the 1930s. In the years since then, I have found myself gradually drawn in by the legacy of this brilliant, enigmatic, and at times maddeningly difficult character.
Otlet's work--largely overlooked in the traditional Anglo-American history of computing--offers a provocative vision of an alternative networked world, one driven not by private enterprise but by a new international entity dubbed the Mundaneum, a kind of central intellectual cortex intended to connect the world's governments, universities, museums, libraries, and other institutions into a unified intellectual whole, all available to anyone in the world, "from the comfort of his armchair."
If you're interested in learning more, allow me to recommend the newly launched book website.
May 22, 2013
It's great to see such a fun, playful treatment of the talk. Given that Bernie turned this around on the fly while I was talking, she can surely be forgiven the odd typo; just for the record: it's Vannevar Bush (not "Bar") and Doug Engelbart with an "a"; and the Eugene Garfield bubble should probably point to Ted Nelson. But these are minor quibbles. All in all she did a fantastic job of capturing the gist of my talk.
Thanks again to Bernie for giving me permission to post this, and to Joe Robinson at Designers and Geeks for inviting me over in the first place.
November 23, 2012
I've been enjoying the chance to get back on the conference circuit again over the past couple of months, after a fairly long hiatus (two kids in diapers have a way of conspiring to keep you at home). There hasn't been much time to reflect on any of it, though, but now that I have a few moments of post-Thanksgiving lull I thought I would try to capture a few highlights:
I walked a few blocks down the street to the Invisible Dog for the third installment in Cameron Koczon and Chris Shiflett's impossible-to-pin-down three-day happening. It takes no small amount of hubris to hold a conference with no pre-announced agenda or speaker list, but somehow they manage to keep selling it out and delivering on increasingly high expectations. Highlights for me included the sheer badassery of Aaron Draplin's opening talk, in which he somehow managed to combine cutting sarcasm about the crappiness of so much modern design with heart-on-his-sleeves passion for the human potential of creative work; Newark mayor Cory Booker's unexpectedly inspired talk on the possibilities of networks to enhance civic participation; the Onion's Baratunde Thurston on the importance of afternoon whiskey and Location-Based Racism; and the chance to meet Ted Nelson, the iconoclastic and famously curmedgeonly genius without whom the Web might never have happened.
I took the bus down to Baltimore in the pre-Sandy rainstorms to attend a day-long conference on the history of information science. In contrast to the hipster-hacker vibe of Brooklyn Beta, this was a more serious and staid academic crowd (then again, I tend to be on the serious and staid end of the spectrum myself). In any case, the presentations were mostly excellent, if a bit on the white-papery side. Boyd Rayward gave an excellent keynote, laying out a sweeping history of how information science has evolved over the years in what he characterized as three successive eras (the print age following Gutenberg; the pre-digital era before WWII; and the current age of ubiquitous technology); Michael Buckland introduced the forgotten photography pioneer Lodewyk Bendikson; and Charles Van Den Heuvel gave a solid overview of Donker Duyvis, the often-overlooked successor to Paul Otlet. The major highlight for me was dinner with Charles and Boyd, where they regaled me with their encyclopedic knowledge of Otletiana over Baltimore seafood and one or two too many glasses of wine.
In early November I visited my old home town and spent a day taking part in Danny Hope's fast-growing UX conference. He put together a provocative lineup of speakers to talk about the past and future of UX design, including: Ben Bashford on the role of empathy in designing for connected devices; Jim Kalbach on innovation; Mike Kuniavsky on the coming confluence of the Maker movement and Web analytics; and Karl Fast on embodied cognition (the best talk of the day, hands-down); and, well, me.
World Usability Day
From Brighton I trekked out to Graz to teach a half-day workshop on user research, thanks to event coordinator Hannes Robier, then participated in an evening conference with an interesting mix of European UXers. Also enjoyed the chance to meet some of the faculty in the interaction design program at the Graz University of Technology, including Keith Andrews and Konrad Baumann, followed by the chance to sample some of the best white port I have ever had the pleasure of tasting at the Buschenschank Labanz in the foothills of southern Austria.
That was more than enough conferencing for one season. It was a fun ride, but I'm long since ready to settle back down for a bit. There's a deadline looming, and it's long since time for me to get back to work.
October 21, 2012
I'm looking forward to attending UX Brighton in early November. For me, this is a bit more than just another Web conference; it's also a kind of homecoming.
From 1978 to 1980, I lived in Brighton while attending school at the long-defunct St. Wilfrid's down the road in Seaford. For two years I led the full-on Tom Brown lifestyle - school tie, sweater, goofy shorts and all. When I wasn't boarding at school I spent a fair bit of time wandering around my adopted hometown - roaming the old amusement piers where the old folks fed their pensions into the penny slot machines, knocking around the crumbling waterfront promenade, and rummaging for washed-up salvage on the abandoned beach past the marina. My major Brighton claim to fame came in 1979, when I watched from the sidewalk while they filmed Quadrophenia.
Somehow it seems fitting that the talk I'll be giving is on the history of hypertext, looking at some of the early precursors to the Web in search of interesting ideas left by the historical wayside. I've always felt like I probably left some of my pre-adolescent self in Brighton - and while of course you can't go home again - I'm hoping that I may yet stumble across a few misplaced memories left somewhere by the sea.
Mastering Information Through the Ages
by Alex Wright
“A penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on the information age and its historical roots.”
—Los Angeles Times
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