kottke.org posts about glut

Paul Otlet and the birth of networked informationJun 04 2014

Alex Wright previously wrote about Paul Otlet (and many other things) in his 2007 book Glut (my post about the book is here). Otlet imagined something like personal computing and the internet back in the 1930s.

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.

Wright is back with a new book called Cataloging the World in which Otlet takes center stage.

In Cataloging the World, Alex Wright introduces us to a figure who stands out in the long line of thinkers and idealists who devoted themselves to the task. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Paul Otlet, a librarian by training, worked at expanding the potential of the catalog card, the world's first information chip. From there followed universal libraries and museums, connecting his native Belgium to the world by means of a vast intellectual enterprise that attempted to organize and code everything ever published. Forty years before the first personal computer and fifty years before the first browser, Otlet envisioned a network of "electric telescopes" that would allow people everywhere to search through books, newspapers, photographs, and recordings, all linked together in what he termed, in 1934, a reseau mondial--essentially, a worldwide web.

Glut: Mastering Information Through the AgesSep 12 2007

Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

So, whoa. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Vannevar Bush's seminal As We May Think, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945, was the first time anyone had described something like the modern desktop computer and the World Wide Web. Not so, says Alex Wright in Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (@ Amazon). A Belgian chap named Paul Otlet described something called the "radiated library" -- or the "televised book" -- in 1934:

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.

Sweet fancy Macintosh, if that's not what we're all doing right here on the web all day.

Much of the section in the book on Otlet was first published by Wright in a Boxes and Arrows essay called Forgotten Father: Paul Otlet. Wright's extensive online bibliography for Glut should keep you busy for a few hours when you're done with that. (I wish all the books I read were accompanied by such bibliographies.) I'll also recommend a related read and one of my favorite technology books, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (@ Amazon):

It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, skepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746).

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get back to my televised book.

Tags related to glut:
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