Inside 1to1:Privacy

Alex Wright: Back to Information's Future

September 1, 2007

By Mike Spinney, CIPP

For today's information stewards, including the community of privacy professionals, developing systems to protect the integrity of data is central to maintaining the balance between productivity and protection of the individual. Technology has produced an explosion in the way we create, store and communicate information, and the pace only promises to quicken in the future. Information overload is not an insurmountable problem, however, and according to author Alex Wright, the way forward may be found in our past. "In our techno-centric age, a lot of us tend to develop a myopic focus on the future, constantly looking for the next big technological thing," Wright told INSIDE 1to1: Privacy. "As the German programmer-philosopher Werner Kunzel once said, 'Computer science is currently so successful that it has no use for its own history.'

"But in our rush to embrace the future, we tend to lose sight of valuable lessons hiding in plain sight in the relatively recent past." With that statement, Wright -- author of the book Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages -- establishes context and expectations for his keynote address at the upcoming IAPP Privacy Academy 2007, October 22-24, in San Francisco.

Currently an information architect for The New York Times, Wright began to experience the disruptive effect of information while working as an assistant librarian at Harvard University, engaged in the first efforts at digitizing the card catalog of the school's vast collection of books and other informational resources. He says he spent a lot of time switching between the digital and analog worlds of information, using typewriters and electric erasers to update the card catalog, while also building an electronic version of the catalog.

From there, Wright earned his master's degree in library science and went on to be part of the creation of IBM.com, an experience that got him deeply interested in the way humans organize information and the disruptive power of information technology.

"I started looking into how this dynamic had played out during earlier historical periods," Wright said. "And that was how I started writing my book."

For privacy professionals, Wright believes there is much to learn from the history of mankind's use and organization of data.

"Today's information explosion may seem like a uniquely modern phenomenon, but we are not the first generation to grapple with the problem of information overload," Wright said, describing his keynote address as an exploration of the heritage of information systems in the age before computers as well as the relationship between information technology and social change. "We will investigate how and why people create systems to manage their collective intellectual capital, and look for historical lessons that may help reshape our perspective on the challenges many of us face today."

The discussion reaches back millennia, before the invention of writing more than 3,000 years ago, to what Wright calls the "deep history of information systems," exploring how even ancient cultures operating on an oral system established patterns of information use that have influenced the subsequent development of information systems, including those in use today. "What surprised me most in researching my book was the remarkable sophistication of pre-literate tribal societies. [We] tend to dismiss non-literate people as cultural simpletons, but in fact, they have incredibly refined techniques for organizing information," Wright said. "We have a lot to learn from oral cultures. In our world of blogs, email and instant messaging, we are living in an increasingly conversational world that in some ways bears more resemblance to earlier oral cultures than to the literate culture of the past few hundred years."

Whether the problems are worked out on clay tablets, papyrus or spread sheets, Wright believes that making sense of an abundance of information comes naturally to the human race. We've done it throughout our history, and the lessons of history may hold the key to doing it today.

Mike Spinney, CIPP, is a communications and privacy consultant from Townsend, Massachusetts. Follow Mike's blog, Private Communications, at http://www.privatecomms.blogspot.com or email him at mike@sixweight.com.