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Lectures from the Allen Room and the Wertheim Study: The Web That Wasn't: Forgotten Forebears of the Internet

March 7, 2013

Program Locations:

Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, South Court Auditorium
General Research Division

If the history of technology teaches us anything, it is that the best technology does not always win.  Today, the World Wide Web has become the dominant platform for transmitting knowledge across the globe.  But in the years leading up to Tim Berners-Lee's world-changing invention, several pioneering information scientists were exploring a wide range of other concepts that resembled - and in some ways surpassed - the Web as we know it today.  What lessons can we learn from these alternative technological visions?

In this presentation, Alex Wright will explore the heritage of these almost-forgotten systems in search of promising ideas left by the historical wayside, focusing on the pioneering work of Paul Otlet, Vannevar Bush, and Doug Engelbart; forebears of the 1960s and 1970s like Ted Nelson, Andries van Dam, and the Xerox PARC team, and more recent forays such as Brown's Intermedia system.  He will trace the heritage of these systems and the solutions they suggest to current Web quandaries, in hopes of finding clues to the future in the recent technological past hidden by the historical wayside.

Alex Wright, a writer in residence in the Library's Allen Room, is the Director of User Experience and Product Research at The New York Times and the author of Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages, hailed by the Los Angeles Times as "a penetrating and highly entertaining meditation on our information age and its historical roots."  He is now at work on his next book, tentatively entitled The Web That Wasn't.  

In addition to The New York Times, his writing has appeared in Salon.com, The Wilson Quarterly, The Christian Science Monitor, The Believer, Harvard Magazine, Utne Reader, Yankee, Think, Interactions, Boxes and Arrows, New Architect, Web Techniques, Boston Business, Design Times and Library Journal, among others.

Alex has also led research and design projects for IBM, Microsoft, The Long Now Foundation, Harvard University, the Internet Archive, and Yahoo!, among others.  His work has won numerous industry awards, including a Webby, Cool Site of the Year, the PRSA Silver Anvil and an American Graphic Design Award.  He is currently a faculty member at the School of Visual Arts MFA program in Interaction Design.

He holds a B.A. in English and American Literature from Brown University and an M.S. in Library and Information Science from Simmons College.  He has also completed graduate coursework in journalism at Harvard, and in usability engineering at UC-Berkeley.

Click here for other lectures from the Allen Room.