This is a summary of my tweetstorm on the history of information technology, drawn from the excellent book Glut: Mastering Information Through The Ages by Alex Wright. I mean “information technology” in the broadest possible sense – the methods and tools we use to manage information in all its forms.


1/ This is a tweetstorm of the major milestones & inventions in the history of information technology. From the best book I’ve found on the subject, Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright. Affiliate link: amzn.to/2qy1THY

2/ There’s two major dualities that Wright identifies weaving through this history: between hierarchies & networks, each one disrupting and then giving rise to the other; and oral vs written culture, each one setting the stage for innovations in the other

3/ Invention #1: Symbolic thought. Seems to have arisen in humans about 45k years ago, during period of rapid climate change. One theory says that scarce resources required humans to form tighter groups for cooperation & competition. Symbolic thought arose to manage social dynamics

4/ #2: Social networks. Social imitation & exchange allowed humans to manage higher orders of information, by pooling sensory data and allowing individuals to draw on collective experience for survival and problem-solving

5/ #3 Ethnobiographical hierarchies: the basic structure of a family was the earliest template for classifying anything. Anthropologist Cecil Brown studied preliterate cultures and found “universal tendency to divide knowledge of plants/animals into five or six nested categories”

6/ Preliterate cultures also all tend to treat mid-level of hierarchy as the “true name” of something. I.e. a “rose” is more a rose than a “plant.” This psychologically primary category is echoed today as we know plants/animals by their genus, which is in the middle of the hierarchy

7/ #4 Beads and pendants: first symbolic objects adopted by Ice Age peoples. Made of stone, shells, ivory, this “ornamental tech” allowed them to imbue objects with emotion, status, significance, allowing them to forge wider social networks of trust

[image of history of beads]

8/ #5 Bullae (tokens): first written notations, invented in Uruk in ancient Sumer around 5000 BC. Shaped as disks, cones, spheres, tetrahedrons, ovoids, cylinders, triangles, or animal heads, each token represented some form of commercial transaction

A bulla (or clay envelope) and its contents on display at the Louvre. Uruk period (4000 BC–3100 BC).

9/ This was first instance of long-running pattern: new forms of information technology first arise for commercial purposes. Writing first emerged as “craft literacy,” later extending to other more creative forms

10/ #6 Writing media (clay tablets, papyrus, engraved bronze/copper): growing volume of transactions required more scalable medium, for government archives, laws, decrees, property records, contracts, treaties, chronicles of battles, etc.

11/ Very beginnings of literature started here, as battles often contained as much fiction as fact. Commercial writing gave rise to astronomy, prophesies, & scientific observations, with first formal writing programs to teach scribes

12/ #7 Document index: oldest index, a tablet with a list of other tablets, found in Ebla, Syria dating to 2300 BC. They don’t seem to be in any discernible order though

One of the Ebla tablets

13/ #8 Document abstract: like a proto-catalog, with keywords for previewing the content of tablets, and call numbers to help find them, found in Hittite settlement of Hattusas near modern Ankara

Treaty of Kadesh tablet, one of the oldest known international peace treaties between the Hittites and the Egyptians under Ramesses II, in 1259 or 1258 BC. Part of royal cuneiform archives known as the Bogazkoy archives

14/ #9 Bilingual standard: Babylon was first culture to have two languages – one for daily vernacular and another (Sumerian) for exalted written text. Like Medieval Europe (with Latin and vernacular), this allowed early formation of wide scholarly networks beyond local languages

15/ #10 Library: Assyrian King Ashurbanipal formed first library in 7th century BC in Mesopotamia. Confiscated every tablet in every temple and home in the entire kingdom to do it, stamping every one with name of scribe and king

Tablet containing part of the Epic of Gilgamesh (Tablet 11 depicting the Deluge), now part of the holdings of the British Museum

16/ This first library established traditions of associating library with worship of deity, following stated acquisition guidelines, & dedicated multi-lingual staff. Earliest libraries were vessels of political power, cementing royal authority & intellectual capital

17/ Other early libraries formed in China in 1400 BC, in Egypt at Thebes in 1225 BC, and India in 1000 BC. They each followed pattern of writing allowing agricultural settlements to become nation states, and then empires, with great flowering of literature

18/ Emperor Shi Huangdi of China burned every book in kingdom in 213 BC, priceless trove of early Confucian and Taoist texts known as the Heavenly Archives (whose most famous curator was Lao Tzu). Planted seed for great ancient Chinese classification system the Seven Epitomes

Killing the Scholars and Burning the Books (18th century Chinese painting)

19/ #11 Phonetic writing: reemerging Greek civilization borrowed phonetic script from Phoenicians, with letters signifying sounds instead of ideas. Drastically simplified reading and writing, by using only 24 symbols

The Phoenician phonetic alphabet

20/ #12 Theoretic thought: ancient Greeks were first to make the leap from mythic to “theoretic” thought, i.e. ability to reflect on thought process itself. Objectivity allowed them to compare, assess, excavate new layers of text through analysis

21/ #13 Formal biological taxonomy: Aristotle developed fascination with categorization in 4th century BC Athens, proposing comprehensive taxonomy of natural world that distinguished mammals, vertebrates, & introduced binomial naming (genus + species)

22/ Aristotle also introduced metaphysics into classification, distinguishing between matter & form (individual instances vs ideal forms) to claim that all phenomena could be described in terms of substance, quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, action, & passion

23/ Aristotle envisioned what we would call a web of semantic relationships: causality, equivalence, identity, similarity, family, inside of, bigger than, and earlier than. His Great Chain of Being cosmic hierarchy would remain standard for 2k years until modern Linnaean system

1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana

24/ #14 Universal public library: Great Library at Alexandria, established 300 BC, was first with ambition to classify all world’s knowledge. With 700k items at peak, it was largest library for 1k years afterward

25/ Scholarly environment with wide colonnades, open spaces for strolling and talking. Ptolemy offered big incentives for scholars to study there, including room & board, generous tax-free salary, lifetime employment

Artist’s depiction of the Library of Alexandria

26/ #15 Library acquisition backlog: Alexandria library’s acquisition policy was “acquire everything,” and any ship docking at harbor had written works confiscated & added to library. Vast warehouse stored incoming items

27/ #16 Systematic abstraction of meta-data: by Alexandria librarian Zenodotus, rudimentary scheme that assigned books to different rooms by subject. Small tags attached to each scroll described the work’s title, author, and subject

28/ #17 Bibliography: poet and librarian Callimachus was the first to create a separate catalog of the collection, a comprehensive bibliography by author known as the Pinakes. It filled 120 scrolls despite him only finishing 20%

29/ #18 Bicameral collection: Julius Caesar decreed that great library be built just before his death in 44 BC. Statesman Pollio ran with it and built first great Roman public library with support of Catullus, Horace, Virgil

30/ Rome established tradition of dividing library collections into two parts: in this case, Latin and Greek (later, would become Christian and pagan works). Libraries were open to public, had reading rooms, and some allowed private borrowing

Artist’s depiction of a Roman library

31/ #19 Salons: Rome established early intellectual salons, where literary, social, political groups could gather to discuss things. Librarians (procurators) had dedicated staff and enjoyed high prestige in society

32/ #20 Books (finally!): 12-foot long papyrus scrolls were unwieldy and had to be read linearly. Codex book, named for attempts to “codify” Roman law, started replacing scrolls. Leafed pages in thick hard covers enabled random access, portability, and durability

The Codex Siniaticus is the oldest known complete text of the Bible, from ca. 350 AD. This copy was discovered in 1844 at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai

33/ #21 Mass production: Roman nobleman Cassiodorus fled siege of Rome and established literary oasis at family estate in Calabria. He established a monastery called a “Vivarium” that would actively produce books, not just archive them

34/ Vivarium became most prolific center of book production in Europe, introducing new faster binding techniques & mechanical lighting to be able to work into the night. These books were duplicated precisely & became canonical texts throughout Christendom

35/ In his work “Foundations of Divine and Secular Literature,” Cassiodorus proposed unified organizational scheme for scriptural AND secular texts, eventually adopted by the Vatican. Actually became precedent for treating secular works on equal footing with religious ones

36/ Cassiodorus also pioneered annotation of texts (marginalia) and specialized, lower-level organizational schemes for specific genres

Vivarium from the Bamberg manuscript of the Institutiones

37/ #22 Manuscript templates: Charlemagne secularized scribal trade by forbidding priests from conducting business transactions. He invited renowned scholar from York named Alcuin to establish great imperial library

38/ Alcuin established a central repository for distributing template manuscripts, making them easier to copy and distribute across the growing empire. He also introduced streamlined script, Carolingian minuscule, which our typefaces are a direct descendant of

Charlemagne receives Alcuin, 780. Artist: Schnetz, Jean-Victor (1787-1870)

39/ #23 Manuscript preservation: during European dark ages, libraries shifted away from brute accumulation to preservation of knowledge. Reproducing codex books required several skilled workers: skinner, parchment maker, beekeeper (for wax tablets), painter, book binder, & scribe

This late 15th-century miniature of Jean Miélot (died 1472)[2] depicts the author at work in a scriptorium, a room in medieval European monasteries devoted to the writing, copying and illuminating of manuscripts by monastic scribes

40/ #24 Private collections: monasteries maintained their own small, idiosyncratic collections, with the armarius in charge of them second only to the abbott in rank. Books were very valuable and kept under lock and key

41/ #25 Scholarly networks: monastic librarians began consulting popular biographical works as guides to growing their collections, which laid foundation for scholarly networks as they coordinated their collections, used similar structures, and borrowed hard-to-find works

42/ #26 Modern catalog: in 1170 first known “scrutinium” emerged, a catalog of monastery’s collection of books. 1495 catalog of the Carthusian cloister Salvatorberg in Erfurt stands as the largest known catalog of the late Middle Ages

43/ #27 Cross-cultural translation & preservation: Muslim world was unlikely haven of written knowledge, since Arabs were oral, tribal culture and Muhammad couldn’t read. But Baghdad had at least 36 libraries, with more than 100 book dealers before falling to Mongols in 1258

44/ In 1004 AD, caliph al-Hakim opened House of Wisdom in Cairo, said to contain 1.6 million books. It was open to the public and books were free to copy, in contrast to jealously guarded European collections

45/ Muslim world preserved a lot of European/Greek thought during Dark Ages: when emperor Justinian closed great school at Athens, 7 prominent teachers went into exile in Persia, which became a repository of Greek philosophy, poetry, science

46/ Arabs conquered Persia and translated these texts. This fueled 500 years of regional dominance and technological progress that made Europe seem like a cultural backwoods

47/ Arabian intellectual heritage seeped back into Europe through southern Italy and Spain, before Mongol invasions left most great Muslim libraries in ashes. This seeded European Renaissance

13th century illustration depicting a public library in Baghdad, from the Maqamat Hariri. Bibliotheque Nationale de France

48/ #28 Illuminated manuscript: transplantation of written culture to warring, feudal, shamanistic tribes of Ireland kicked off by St. Patrick was extraordinarily successful. Irish were first people to be introduced to writing via the book, giving them non-linear way of reading

49/ Ireland became literary R&D center, populated by innovative scribes protected from chaos of dark ages. Within 100 yrs they were producing beautiful manuscripts with provocative illustrations that became gold standard for Europe

50/ Anti-hierarchical, individualistic Celtic ethos infiltrated back to Continental Europe, bringing them lavish illustrations, marginalia, & layered type styles. Irish scribes were proto-multimedia bloggers, fusing words & images in non-linear, colorful, individualistic works

Page from the famous illuminated manuscript the BooK of Kells showing Christ enthroned

51/ #29 Punch-transfer technique: Medieval Europe saw invention of first semi-mass production of books. Punch-transfer technique “pricked” an overlaying page that served as a kind of stencil. Powder dusted through the holes of the stencil were used by illustrator as a guide

52/ This allowed rise of such secular best-sellers as physiologus (or bestiary), with simple verse descriptions of animals + colorful illustrations. First editions were Biblical but over time became like a proto-encyclopedia, documenting many species and spreading all over Europe

Detail from the 12th century Aberdeen Bestiary

53/ #30 Universities: books began to find audience among emerging bourgeoisie, who were educated at secular universities. Secular book industry began to take shape, with scholars, students, booksellers, professional copyists, and “stationers” fueling book trade

54/ Universities turned out graduates, who sought new types of popular texts written in vernacular: travel journals, poems, romances, lives of saints, and Book of Hours. Christopher Columbus’ travels in the Americas was a best-seller

Opening from the Hours of Catherine of Cleves, c. 1440, with Catherine kneeling before the Virgin and Child, surrounded by her family heraldry

55/ #31 Paper!: fueled preliminary information explosion, replacing parchment and vellum with pulp-based product. Cost of materials plunged and editions of books became cheaper, driving adoption

56/ #32 Wood block printing: precursor to printing press, allowed reproduction of books at a faster, cheaper pace. Set the stage for Gutenberg

57/ #33 Curators: in Rome, Pope Sixtus IV initiated great expansion of Vatican Library, establishing role of scriptores (curators of the collection). Vatican Library catalog of 1475 provides unique glimpse into evolving organization of knowledge

58/ #34: Printing press: initially enthusiastically embraced by monks, who saw it as more efficient way of spreading the gospel. Wealthy man acted like venture capitalists, funding establishment of new presses as far away as Paris, Lyons, and Seville

59/ #35 Roman typefaces: scholastic books were printed in black gothic letters. Vernacular works used bastarda gothic. New “littera antique” typeface took hold among humanists, the ancestor of today’s familiar roman typefaces

60/ New standardized roman typefaces extinguished idiosyncratic, local styles that characterized illuminated manuscripts. This was a rejection of medieval scholasticism in favor of secular wisdom of the ancients

Page from the Book of Hours of Giovanni II Bentivoglio, Bologna, c. 1497-1500. Humanist minuscule script with colored versals and decorations

61/ #36 Standardized book conventions: books started becoming a commodity, leading to more standardization in title/chapter pages & colophons. Roman type became equivalent of ASCII type today: a universally recognized standard that sped the flow of information across a distant network

62/ Secular book trade took off, with demand for calendars, almanacs, and classical works along with religious texts. By 1500 printing presses had already produced 8 millions books, and 200 million by end of 16th century

63/ #37 Textual communities: spread of documents and literacy led to formation of textual communities based around written works, especially anti-establishment works. Movable type granted authority to a text, which could now be interpreted by anyone, not just scholarly elite

64/ #38 Broadsheet: falling prices and mass production allowed reformists to print broadsheets, posters announcing meetings, and post all over town. Allowed growth of underground movements without support of church and state

65/ In general, printing press unleashed enormous violence as linear, left-brained way of thinking came into conflict with traditional, oral/visual right-brain culture. Spread of printing coincided almost perfectly with witch burning

66/ #39 Art of memory: first practiced by Simonides, Greek poet who in 5th century BC described method for improving memory by visualizing a series of loci (places) in a particular order, then associating a meaningful image with each place

67/ Aristotle advanced it in “On memory and recollection”, describing memorization as a visual practice that invoked “inner eye” of memory to summon phantasmata (images) stored in the “sensitive soul” and making them available to the “intellectual soul” of the logical mind

68/ Thomas Aquinas resurrected Aristotle’s work and turned it into practice for scholastic monks to memorize long Biblical passages, celebrating it as a remedy for the frailties of the human mind

69/ Art of memory later became seen as symbol of superstitious and backward medieval times, criticized by prominent thinkers like Erasmus, Philipp Melanchthon, Cornelius Agrippa, and Michel de Montaigne as being rote memorization without true learning

Graphical memory devices from the works of Giordano Bruno

70/ #40 Scientific method: Francis Bacon published Novum Organum in 1620, departing from scholastic beliefs in esoteric practices and disembodied ideals, and proposing a completely new approach to scholarship based on empiricism

71/ His scientific method relied on induction (reasoning from direct observation) plus system of scholarly collaboration as a cumulative enterprise. Hierarchies of meaning would be constructed bottom-up through trial and error, seeking useful knowledge instead of ultimate truth

The title page illustration of Bacon’s Novum Organum

72/ #41 Encyclopedias: arose to help readers make sense of exploding volume of information. Earliest example is by English playwright Thomas Heywood, who published proto-encyclopedia containing all his knowledge of women without any explicit structure

73/ Diderot later created history’s greatest encyclopedia, adopting Bacon’s classifications to gather massive collection of 72,000 articles written by 160 eminent contributors (including notables like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Buffon)

74/ Diderot took unprecedented step of capturing folk knowledge from common tradespeople, including everyday topics like cloth dying, metalwork, and glassware, with entries accompanied by detailed illustrations explaining the intricacies of the trades

75/ This had revolutionary implications, by granting craft knowledge equal status with high culture of statecraft, scholarship, religion. So much so that Revolutionary French court spared his son-in-law’s life when they heard he was related to Diderot

“Figurative system of human knowledge”, the structure that the Encyclopédie organised knowledge into. It had three main branches: memory, reason, and imagination

76/ #42 Modern biological taxonomy: in 1735 young botanist Carolus Linnaeus published Systema Naturae, proposing universal classification of all life to replace local, idiosyncratic systems that made it impossible for scientist’s to build on each other’s work

77/ Linnaeus proposed nested hierarchy, consisting of top-level kingdoms, which in turn were divided into classes, orders, families, genera, and species. Ultimately encompassed 7,700 plant and 4,400 animal species

78/ His key breakthrough was borrowing from existing folk taxonomies, which always had 5-6 levels of hierarchy, with the “true name” located approximately in the middle. Linnaean system also preserves the genus at the mid-level as the animal’s most commonly used name

79/ Linnaean system succeeded because it was simple, had precise rules, was easy to systematize, and supported division of scientific labor. In contrast with Buffon’s competing theory, which was more accurate in allowing for evolution of species, but not easy to use

The 1735 classification of animals

80/ #43 Scientific library classification: by 1814 Thomas Jefferson’s private library was 6,500 volumes, one of largest in the world, which used Bacon’s hierarchical classifications: Memory (history), Reason (philosophy), and Imagination (fine arts)

81/ Jefferson’s embrace of Linnaean taxonomy and Baconian empiricism set the stage for information architecture of young U.S., influencing many private libraries and Library of Congress

An exhibit featuring Thomas Jefferson’s library in the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC

82/ #44 Subject-based catalog: in 1831 British Museum hired Anthony Panizzi as its new assistant keeper of printed books as it experienced rapid growth: 5 visitors/month in 1759 vs. 180/day a century later. Printed catalog had grown from 7 volumes in 1810 to 48 in 1831

83/ They thought they gave him a rote task of reorganizing catalog, but he instead proposed revolutionary scheme: a catalog organized by SUBJECT. This had been done before, but not on this scale

84/ Panizzi created tiered subject headings covering every possible subject, including 91 rules that would become foundation for Anglo-American Cataloguing Rules, still in widespread use today. Populist spirit of this more accessible catalogue opened up libraries to the public

85/ #45 Multidimensional subject-based classification: American cataloger Charles Ammi Cutter added multiple dimensions to subject cataloguing, recognizing that many patrons came to library with only a vague question in mind, & needed help finding a book to answer it

86/ Cutter’s Expansive Classification System introduced elaborate multi-tiered subject scheme describing works by author, title, subject (early meta-data). Alphanumeric call numbers described general to specific topics, and card catalog was introduced to be able to carry around

Diagram explaining how books are coded according to “Cutter numbers” allowing more rapid alphabetization

87/ #46 Dewey decimal system: American librarian Dewey standardized not only call numbers, but all parts of library operations, introducing interchangeable parts, standardized practices, and limiting power of librarians

88/ Dewey decimal system has proven remarkably resilient, surviving numerous revisions and transition to digital card catalogs. Often criticized for oversimplifying categories, it won because of its simplicity and usability

Modern graphical summary of the main sections of the Dewey Decimal Classification

89/ #47 Faceted classification: in 1930s visionary Indian librarian Shiyali Ramamrita Ranganathan proposed entirely new approach to cataloguing, using descriptions based on multivalent characteristics of each work, rather than single top-down deterministic list of subjects

90/ Any document could be broken down in terms of five facets: personality, matter, energy, space, and time. These facets could then be combined and interpolated to describe any piece of information in almost endlessly reconfigurable ways

91/ Faceted classification was highly influential as an ideal system, but complexity made it hard to implement, though Library of Congress Subject Headings support a limited implementation. UC Berkeley’s Flamenco multimedia database was another real-world implementation

92/ Faceted classification strongly influenced computer science, because it lends itself so well to relational databases. Has influenced web-based applications where iterative querying is the norm

Simple example of how faceted classification has influenced modern web browsing

93/ #48 Specialized libraries: libraries focused on specific fields (newspapers, business, biology, etc.) began to appear. These librarians saw themselves not just as book curators but as active participants in organizational ecologies of information, liberating information from books

94/ Documentalist movement recast role of librarians as producers of intellectual capital, what today we would call “knowledge workers.” They put more emphasis on managing internal info (Internal reports, employee correspondence, laboratory test results, technical reports)

95/ In 1883 Cutter wrote essay “The Buffalo Public Library in 1983,” imagining library in 100 years. He envisioned readers sitting at desks with “a little keyboard” through which they could connect with a central electronic catalog, ordering books by punching in a call number

96/ He even foresaw networks of libraries connected by a “fonographic foil” that would enable them to communicate telegraphically, accessing each other’s collections so readily that “all the libraries in the country … are practically one library.” He was less than a decade off

97/ #49 Semantic webs: Paul Otlet was bibliographer, pacifist, and entrepreneur, and also the internet’s forgotten forefather. In 1934, years before Bush, Engelbart, or Nelson, he envisioned a new kind of networked, multimedia-rich information space

98/ Users would access databases of recorded information from great distances by means of an “electric telescope,” retrieving facsimile images to be projected remotely on a flat screen

99/ Scholar’s workstation would be a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read, and write their way through a vast mechanical database

The Mondothèque—a “scholar’s workstation” with multimedia capabilities

100/ This new research environment would do more than just let users retrieve documents; it would also let them annotate the relationships between them, “the connections each [document] has with all other [documents], forming from them what might be called the Universal Book”

101/ He adopted the word “links” to describe these relationships, and the word “web” for their overall structure. His big insight was that organizational schemes only guided people to an individual book—but no further

102/ His Universal Decimal Classification (UDC) sought to map relationships between IDEAS, not just books. It was first attempt at a web of semantic relationships, instead of a specialized classification system that ignored the importance of a subject’s connections

A section of the Mundaneum—Otlet’s Universal Bibliographic Repertory based on the catalogue-card index format. Otlet’s efforts produced over 12 million of these index cards and other documents during his lifetime

103/ Otlet’s Traité de Documentation argued that documents could best be understood as three-dimensional things, with the third dimension being their social context: their relationship to place, time, language, as well as other readers, writers, and topics

104/ Otlet’s vision suggests an intellectual environment illuminated by both objective classification and the direct influence of readers and writers: a system simultaneously ordered and self-organizing and endlessly reconfigurable by the individual reader

Paul Otlet’s conceptual model of how human knowledge is recorded

105/ #50 Memex: Vannevar Bush published “As We May Think,” describing a scholar’s workstation, which provided access to large collections of documents stored on microfilm, allowing users to read, write, annotate documents, forge “associative trails” between them

106/ Bush was prolific inventor and engineer, and saw libraries as one of the great unsolved technical challenges of the age. He was worried that growing influence of corporations was neglecting role of human-centered, individualistic computing he envisioned

107/ He began work on Rapid Selector (a rapid microfilm selector with built-in indexing) in mid-1930s for Kodak and NCR, but it was plagued by technical problems and slow speed. The technology wasn’t ready

108/ Bush: “Specialization becomes increasingly necessary for genuine progress, and efforts to bridge between disciplines correspondingly superficial. Still we adhere to methods of revealing, transmitting, & reviewing results which are generations old”

109/ Bush tried again with his Comparator, a fully functioning info-retrieval system custom built for the Navy during World War II. Had moderate success with large organizations that had to manage large collections of info: FBI (fingerprints), Patent & Trademark office, and Library of Congress

110/ The tech worked, but the major limitation was the manual, human-centric indexing process. Bush developed an antipathy for manual indexing and for librarians, which set the stage for the Memex

111/ Here is the most famous passage in his essay “As We May Think,” which inspired generations of computer scientists, describing a research tool that allowed links (“associations”) to be formed into a superstructure which others could draw from and build upon:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the Memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior. The historian with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trailblazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciplines the entire scaffolding by which they were erected. Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores and consults the record of the race.”

112/ Memex sought to liberate ideas from books, breaking down hierarchical index of subjects introduced by Panizzi & Cutter that had made libraries so welcoming to novices, but required enormous cognitive overhead for a scholar to navigate effectively

113/ He sought to replace “selection by indexing,” which always required an external reference that made moving between ideas cumbersome, to “selection by association,” where links flowed directly from one idea to another

114/ In 1958 Bush wrote “Memex II,” never published in his lifetime, looking toward a future of “biological memory crystals,” networking large collections of data, remote access, and even extra-sensory perception and symbiosis between computers and the human brain

Original illustration of the Memex from the Life reprint of “As We May Think”

115/ #51 Citation ranking: in 1950s, young library science student Eugene Garfield was inspired by Bush’s essay to develop citation ranking, a tool for assessing the impact of scholarly articles by tracking the frequency of bibliographic citations

116/ The more citations an academic paper received, the higher its “influence ranking,” which in turn lent more weight to whatever documents it cited. It effectively circumvented manual indexing in favor of organic, crowdsourced, bottom-up approach

Example of citation network, with Garfield’s own works in orange

117/ #52 Interactive hypertext system: Andries van Dam led research team at Brown University in 1960s which produced first working prototype of an interactive hypertext system on a commercially available mainframe, the IBM 360/50

118/ File Retrieval and Editing SyStem (FRESS) was multi-user, device-independent, and supported online collaborative work, writing process, and document production. Had bidirectional links, macros, both display and keyword metadata

119/ Users could assign free-form keywords (today known as “tagging”), allowing users to create their own idiosyncratic meta structure for documents. Brown offered experimental courses using FRESS among students, early example of online discussions in threaded comments

Photo an IBM 2250 Mod 4 display station, including a light pen and programmed function keyboard, channel coupled to Brown’s IBM 360 mainframe, running HES, the predecessor to FRESS

120/ #53 Centralized hypertext environment: led by Norm Meyrowitz and Nicole Yankelovich, a team at brown built on FRESS to create IRIS Intermedia, the most fully fledged hypertext environment to emerge before the Web (and whose capabilities have yet to be equaled by the Web)

121/ Users could create collections of interlinked original materials online, i.e. a “web” of knowledge about any topic. IRIS stored all links in a central database, which ensured integrity of links but had trouble scaling (which the Web solved by making links unidirectional)

122/ Intermedia pioneered email with hyperlinks, collaborative authoring tools, and live objects that could be updated dynamically across multiple applications. It was still focused on research, as every document could be read and edited

123/ Hypertext movement laid many of the foundations for modern Web, by replacing centralized, linear thinking about information with decentralized, multi-linear nodes, links, and networks. This democratized texts, putting marginal works on a level playing field with privileged ones

An Intermedia web view. The InterDraw document called Mitosis OV is open. Each arrow icon in the overview diagram indicates the existence of one or more links. These connections are dynamically represented in the “Cell Motility: Web View” document. The web view is individual to each user and is saved from session to session

124/ #54 Campus information system: Gopher was developed at University of Minnesota by Mark McCahill and Farhad Anklesaria. Functioned as a campus-wide, distributed menu system. Enabled content owners to publish content in a unified browsing environment

125/ Resources were stored locally, or on a remote network, a proto-Web. By 1993 a thriving internet subculture was growing on college campuses, where people had tasted potential of networked information

126/ #55 Modern computer interface: American engineer and inventor Doug Engelbart was inspired by Bush’s essay to explore information-retrieval systems, eventually inventing the mouse, the graphical user interface, collaborative groupware, word processors

127/ In 1962 he described a new vision for machine-assisted intelligence: “By ‘augmenting human intellect,’ we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems”

128/ He envisioned “a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids”

129/ It was a deeply human-centric view of computing, and relied on breaking down knowledge into “atomized nuggets” that could be reconstituted in endless possible configurations

130/ Engelbart’s 1968 “Mother of All Demos” at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, had him showing a working prototype of a modern computer interface to 1,000 attendees, many of whom would go on to found tech companies inspired by this vision

Engelbart’s prototype of a computer mouse, as designed by Bill English from Engelbart’s sketches

131/ #56 Xanadu: young Harvard sociology student Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext” in a 1965 paper: “nonsequential writing—text that branches and allows choices to the reader, best read at an interactive screen”

132/ Nelson called himself a “systems humanist,” waging a lifelong battle against technocrats and corporate influence on computing, wanting to make computers accessible to everyone, not just “back office programmers”

133/ He famously said that “Everything is intertwingled,” and wanted to use computers to share not just text but visceral and sensory experiences. His Xanadu supported enormous range of tasks: word processing, file mgmt, email, & meta-documents

134/ 20 years before the Web emerged into popular consciousness, Nelson described a staggeringly bold vision:

“[A] world wide network, intended to generate hundreds of millions of users simultaneously for the corpus of the world’s stored writings, graphics and data.… The Xanadu system provides a universal data structure to which all other data structures will be mapped … a fast linking electronic repository for the storage and publication of text, graphics and other digital information; permitting promiscuous linkage and windowing among all materials; with special features for alternative versions, historical backtrack and arbitrary collaging.”

135/ Nelson’s 1981 book Literary Machines provided direct inspiration for World Wide Web. Although Xanadu never really took off, it provided essential blueprint for the modern web browser – a small local program interacting with remote servers to fetch data

OpenXanadu, a workling release of the Xanadu software that began development in 1960

136/ #57 World Wide Web: young researcher Tim Berners-Lee released a new software tool developed at CERN laboratory in 1980, but it was completely lost in a calamitous hard drive crash. Luckily, he started from scratch again and on the second try came up with the World Wide Web

137/ Released as World Wide Web in 1989, it was a tremendously democratizing technology that made power of computing and networking available to all. Though it focused on consumption & fell short of the two-way authoring environment envisioned by Nelson, and Berners-Lee himself

138/ #58 TCP/IP: distributed networking protocol developed as part of ARPANET project, funded by U.S. Defense Dept, by pioneering engineers Vinton G. Cerf & Robert B. Kahn. Ultimately formed backbone of global internet as part of Internet Protocol Suite

139/ #59 Google: search engine and company founded by Larry Page & Sergey Brin, who extrapolated Garfield’s work on citation ranking to all web pages, not just academic papers. Their paper introduced Pagerank algorithm as a scalable way of indexing the exploding web

140/ #60 Windows-style graphical desktop: several of Engelbart’s associates left SRI to join Palo Alto Research Center, eventually developing windows-style graphical desktop, bitmap displays, Ethernet protocol, WYSIWYG text editing, laser printer, Alto personal computer

Early experimental personal computer, the Xerox Alto, with a monitor in vertical orientation

141/ A young Steve Jobs borrowed many ideas from Xerox PARC when he visited, which found their way into the Macintosh, which would also provide conceptual foundation for Microsoft Windows, the very machines we are using to read and write these tweets

142/ Good job making it this far! As your reward, here are my full notes on the book this content is taken from, Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages by Alex Wright


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