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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Review: The Guardian of All Things

The Guardian of All Things purports to be a book about the story of memory. That tickles so many geek flash-points in me that I placed the book on hold right away at the library. The first half of the book is exciting: we get an overview of how memory shaped humanity, of how early writing evolved from scratches in the sand to more permanent forms like clay tablets, and then papyrus. Then we cover parchment, scribing/copying of books and finally paper.

Unfortunately, it feels as though by the time the author gets around to discussing paper he's lost interest in the topic. We never do get a good overview of how paper evolved. By the time we arrive at the modern era, the narrative is now rushing at a breakneck pace. We get hints of intriguing stories. For instance, Al Shugart founded Seagate in order to take advantage of the anticipated demand in hard disk drives sized for personal computers. But what people did not know was that Shugart had formerly founded another company which got bought by Xerox.  That company, Shugart Associates, invented the 5.25" floppy disk, which was designed to be just a bit too big to fit in a shirt pocket, since they believed that carrying a disk that way would likely damage it.

While these little intriguing details were dropped in here and there, entire pieces of computer history was dropped. For instance, there's no mention of DAT tapes. The cassette audio tape was given barely a mention, and the entire history of film (silent and audio) was squeezed into two pages. Instead, we get a final chapter full of speculation (admitted good speculation --- for instance, Malone is appropriately skeptical of Ray Kurzweil's Singularity) which doesn't even begin to touch on the way Google and Facebook use storage nowadays. There's another intriguing side story about how a Carrington Event might actually wipe out a large amount of electronic storage. There's no substantiation about this event, and it doesn't seem very likely, but this sort of side-mention reduces Malone's credibility.

In other words, you might want to read this book, and I certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from reading it, but treat it like summer reading and don't take anything you read seriously, or at least, without triple checking the references.

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