Size Matters: Knowledge, Storage, and the History of Compression

Hansun Hsiung recently finished his PhD about textbooks and the globalization of scientific knowledge in the nineteenth century at Harvard. He is currently working on a project about compression at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. An interview with Hansun Hsiung on the History of Compression

Interview by Dennis Schep

What is the history of compression?

In the past decade or so, several historians, most notably Ann Blair, have attempted to historicize our contemporary “information overload” by excavating precursors from the early modern era. These studies have shown that since the rise of commercial print at latest, we’ve been creatively struggling with the problem of “too much to know.” My project takes this line of inquiry, and refocuses it on problems of material infrastructure. Knowledge is embedded in objects, and we build infrastructures such as libraries and archives to house these objects. But objects take up space. Thus, if information overload does have a long history, then this history is not only a problem of “too much to know.” It must also be a problem of “too much to store.”