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Review: Glut by Alex Wright

In preparation for UX Australia, I recently read keynote speaker Alex Wright's 2007 book Glut. Beyond the obscure title, Wright's book is an entertaining history of what we now call information architecture (even if Joshua Porter says that IA is dying). The book takes the angle of relating historical events to today – a type of 'flashback book'. Going from the animal kingdom through to the internet, Wright transplants modern terms onto historical practices – the Irish monks who liberally interpreted the bibles they copied were bloggers, their canons “a kind of illuminated hypertext”.

While the allusions can seem forced at times, they are a reminder of Latour's maxim that “we have never been modern”, a pertinent reminder in an age of “Twitter is the biggest thing since [insert word here]” hyperbole. The flashback format of the book makes it a very clear read (as you might expect from a writer with a library science background!) Funnily enough, I found the book got funnier and more irreverent as it got along – whether it's easier to be witty about Victorian librarians than Ancient Sumerians than anyone's guess. Personally, the most fascinating area for me was about the “art of memory” – a method medieval monks would use to remember huge amounts of information: “A monk would apprentice himself to a master of the Art, who would teach him to visualize a a series of metaphorical images. ..For example a monk might lean to memorize a room in a house, containing a series of symbolic objects tied to a particular theme … The trainee wold commit the contents of each room to memory, slowly mastering the painstaking journey from room to room…. The practice took years to master, but those who could reported astonishing mnemonic feats … ” -pp. 125-6 Other highlights include the story of taxonomies (it's true, 5-7 categories and levels of nesting is common across many cultures), the fight between academics about top-down and bottom-up hierarchies, and how Ted Nelson deserves to be remembered for his writings as well as Xanadu. Highly recommended read for anyone interested in information, communication and the history of the web.