Privacy Advisor

The Privacy Advisor Catches Up with Author Alex Wright

November 1, 2007

The Privacy Advisor interviewed Alex Wright, author of "GLUT: Mastering Information Through the Ages." Wright is a writer and information architect who has led information architecture initiatives for The New York Times, Harvard University, IBM, Microsoft, The Long Now Foundation, Internet Archive, and Yahoo!, among others.

The Privacy Advisor (TPA):
How did you come up with the premise of your book — that lessons from the past derived from an analysis of the "deep history of information systems" could prove informative to the challenges posed by today's information explosion?

Wright: When I started writing the book, I originally set out to write a history of computing, with maybe a cursory nod to the history of books and libraries. But as I started doing my research, I realized there was a much bigger story at work here, and that to answer the question of why and how people share information, we need to look further back than our traditional historical narrative of the past 2-3 thousand years. I became fascinated by the strategies that pre-literate societies used to organize information, and the more I learned the more convinced I became that many of our present-day approaches to managing information are deeply rooted in human prehistory.

TPA: What are the valuable lessons learned from our past that will inform us in the information age?

Wright: Some technology pundits have suggested that the rise of the Internet represents a fundamental turning point in human history, the moment when self-organizing networks overthrow the authoritarian forces of top-down, hierarchical systems. In my book, I argue that this tension between hierarchies and networks is actually part of a larger, cyclical process: that networks and hierarchies are in constant flux, forever giving rise to each other. So even though it may seem that hierarchical systems are in retreat right now, there's a good chance that new kinds of hierarchies may emerge out of the self-organizing networks taking shape today.

TPA:
In your Introduction, you describe how some "dissidents" have questioned the "dark side of digitization," which includes threats to personal privacy. In your view, does social networking fall into the "dark side" category? If not, what are the advantages of social networking?

Wright:
Social networking tools certainly present potential risks to personal privacy, but I wouldn't go so far as to label social networking as part of the "dark side." After all, people have been building social networks for millennia. What's new is that we now have the technology to visualize those relationships and expose them for others to see. We are still learning how to do that skillfully, while minimizing the potential for harm. But networking is a deep-seated human impulse, and that's not going to change. Like most technology problems, it's all in the execution.

TPA: In Glut, you also describe how the Internet has given birth to the "new, enlightened age of individual expression: a renaissance of creativity and personal freedom." How should corporations deal with this reality when it comes to allowing employees to access their Facebook accounts at work or post comments online about their companies and/or jobs?

Wright:
The spread of the Internet is blurring the lines between our personal and professional lives. In an era when almost every office worker has a Web browser on the desktop, it's unrealistic to think that people aren't going to sneak in an occasional look at their bank account or do a little holiday shopping between meetings. Of course there need to be intelligent policies in place for certain activities (e.g., blogging about your employer, or commenting in public forums). But I think it's inevitable that people are going to embrace the tools of self-expression and find new ways to connect with each other; and there's only so much an employer can (or should) do to prevent that.

TPA: As an employee of The New York Times, it would be interesting to know your take on how newspapers can survive in an era of collaboration. How can newspapers, as institutional hierarchies, spawn their own networks and remain financially viable?

Wright: The Times grapples with that question every day. In an increasingly networked world, the newspaper is becoming a porous thing, operating amid a constant flux of search queries, blog posts and RSS feeds. The Times is learning to negotiate its place in that world while maintaining its bedrock journalistic values, which inevitably turn on a kind of editorial exclusivity (anyone can write a blog, but frankly not anyone can write for the Times). It's a challenging proposition, but the Times is continuing to innovate in the face of potential adversity: we now publish hundreds of blogs and RSS feeds, and we recently decided to open up our archives and opinion columns so that Web users can read (and blog) almost anything the newspaper publishes. We're also exploring new ways of energizing the community of readers on nytimes.com. As for financial viability, that's not exactly my department, but I think it's safe to surmise that the Times decided it made good business sense to give people unfettered access to its content, and rely on advertising rather than paid subscriptions to underwrite its Web business.

TPA:
In Glut, you say that the printing press "played a central role in triggering a series of bloody convulsions that would sweep the European continent" during the Reformation. What will supplant the Internet in the way the printing press was integral to the spread of Protestantism?

Wright:
If there's one lesson we can glean from the history of technology, it's the law of unintended consequences. No one could have predicted that the printing press would help trigger the Protestant Reformation. Today, we can only begin to guess at the long-term consequences of the Internet. But it seems reasonable to suppose that the spread of the global network will continue to trigger major shifts in the structure of organizations, make national boundaries more porous, and fuel a trend towards bottom-up, self-organizing communities.

TPA: How can privacy professionals use your thesis to better execute their duties in their organizations?

Wright: Well, I can't promise that my book will directly influence the way anyone writes their corporate privacy policies. But I do hope it helps people broaden their perspectives and take a longer view of our role as information stewards. They may not realize it, but today's privacy professionals are the inheritors of a trade that stretches deep into human history.