Alex Wright – The Web That Wasn’t

27 December 2007

Finally got around to watching Alex Wright’s Google Tech Talk entitled The Web That Wasn’t. Alex is the author of GLUT: Mastering Information Through the Ages, a book I don’t own yet but will be getting soon. The talk is based on the book and gives a tour of philosophical and direct precursors to the web. Fascinating stuff. He discusses Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, Eugene Garfield, Ted Nelson, and other. The talk is one hour long, but worth it.

Some of the lessons from looking at the history of early notions of networked systems:

  • Top down and bottom up organization of information can work in concert with each other
  • Two-way linking provides more information than one-way. (Of course, to this point I’d say that the web wouldn’t have taken off if two-way linking was mandatory.)
  • Showing pathways and usage patterns is important information about information.
  • Users can be authors and contributors
  • The nature of interaction is more from the “oral” tradition

We can see some of these things on the web today, but looking at alternative systems (theoretical or real) still provides inspiration. It also reminds us that the “new” ideas and concepts–even things like Web 2.0–aren’t necessarily new. Overall, he points things in a broad perspective.

One point he makes quickly in the Q&A session: things like controlled vocabularies may have a place in bounded domains. The example he gives is MeSH. He mentions maybe there is a way to automate this, but the point is that we can learn from all the work done on developing controlled vocabularies to date. This mirrors a point I made in my presentation in Barcelona the Euro IA Summit and in an article for the ASIST Bulletin of the same title: Navigating the Long Tail.

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