James Gleick’s latest book is The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. He is working on a history of time travel.

What Libraries Can (Still) Do

Heinrich Lukas Arnold: <em>The Reading Room</em>, circa 1840

Librarians will need to cherish their special talent as “stewards” while letting go of the instinct to be “collectors.” Knowledge in physical form needs to be preserved and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes, libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything.

Bot or Not?

The robot Elektro

It’s understood now that, beside what we call the “real world,” we inhabit a variety of virtual worlds. Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. Increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots. “Bot” is of course short for robot. And bots are very, very tiny, skeletal, incapable robots—usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.

Today’s Dead End Kids

People wearing Guy Fawkes masks to identify themselves as members of Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013
William Gibson, who invented the word “cyberspace” for his futuristic 1984 novel Neuromancer, has said that the notion came to him when he watched kids playing video games at an arcade in Vancouver. They stared into their consoles, turning knobs and pounding buttons to manipulate a universe no one else …

My Carcass and Myself

Abner Dean: <i> 1947" />

In our time the transformation and transplantation of bodies are commonplace. The bionic woman, the bionic man—that’s us, more and more every day. We don’t have brain transplants yet, but we’ve thought about it. So what if a person could survive past his bodily death, to be reconstituted in another form? That is the question Marcel Theroux explores in his novel Strange Bodies.

Time Regained!

Salvador Dalí: <i>The Sense of Speed</i>, 1931
We say that time passes, time goes by, and time flows. Those are metaphors. We also think of time as a medium in which we exist. If time is like a river, are we standing on the bank watching, or are we bobbing along? It might be better merely to say that things happen, things change, and time is our name for the reference frame in which we organize our sense that one thing comes before another.

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Categories are a big deal. They are an important way to group articles; some people use them to navigate or browse. Categories provide structure for a web of knowledge—not a tree, because a category can have multiple parents, as well as multiple children. It’s fair to say that Wikipedia has spent far more time considering the philosophical ramifications of categorization than Aristotle and Kant ever did.

Librarians of the Twitterverse

 William Heath: <i>March of Intellect</i>, 1829

The Library of Congress is now stockpiling the entire Twitterverse, or Tweetosphere, or whatever we’ll end up calling it—anyway, the corpus of all public tweets. There are a lot. The library embarked on this project in April 2010, when Jack Dorsey’s microblogging service was four years old, and four years of tweeting had produced 21 billion messages. Since then Twitter has grown, as these things do, and 21 billion tweets represents not much more than a month’s worth. As of December, the library had received 170 billion—each one a 140-character capsule garbed in metadata with the who-when-where. Effectively searching this mass of unstructured data, this barnyard of straw, will be more difficult than people may think.

How Google Dominates Us

How thoroughly and how radically Google has already transformed the information economy has not been well understood. The merchandise of the information economy is not information; it is attention. These commodities have an inverse relationship. When information is cheap, attention becomes expensive. Attention is what we, the users, give to Google, and our attention is what Google sells—concentrated, focused, and crystallized.

The Information Palace

The word “information” has grown urgent and problematic—a signpost seen everywhere, freighted with new meaning and import. We hardly need the lexicographers of the Oxford English Dictionary to tell us that, but after all, this is what they live for. It is a word, they tell us, “exhibiting significant linguistic productivity,” a word that “both reflects and embodies major cultural and technological change,” therefore a word crying out for their attention. In their latest quarterly revision, December 2010, just posted, the entry for “information” is utterly overhauled. (The OED, in case you hadn’t noticed, has evolved into an enterprise of cyberspace, rather than a mere book.)

‘If Shakespeare Had Been Able to Google…’

There have never been so many words, and we’ve never been so obsessed with them. An entire literary genre comprises nothing more than compilations of words, in order—which generally means alphabetical order—with or without commentary and exegesis. These are wordbooks, including but not limited to dictionaries. English now has tens …