For Wells Is Not the Plural of Orwell
Seventy years ago, the Martian ambassador, greatly alarmed by the state of planet Earth and with an eye to helping humanity escape its own “growing powers of waste and destruction,” became convinced that nothing could be more effective than a general and permanent distribution of universal knowledge: encyclopedism. In the footprints of Comenius, “Everyone should learn everything,” and Diderot, “If we want philosophers to move forward, we need to bring the people to where the philosophers are now,” the ambassador suddenly put all his time and energy into working on the most xtravagant idea. This is precisely what we see happening today beneath the fires of current events.
The formidable collection of all forms of knowledge--an immeasurably vaster project than the Encyclopedia Britannica would ever have dreamed of tackling, one employing thousands perpetually with an eye to daily and international coordination of everything that might emerge from intellectual institutions--was a concept H. G. Wells (1866-1946) first formulated in a chapter of Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind in 1931. He then applied this concept in three novels--The Croquet Player, The Camford Visitation, and Star-Begotten--and in a work entitled World Brain, which synthesized a vision that has become quite familiar to us recently.
World Brain is an anthology of five conferences, four articles, and a radio address, dating from 1936 to 1938. The first was entitled “World Encyclopedia.” It was delivered on November 20, 1936, at the Royal Institution of Great Britain and advocated for a worldwide neoencyclopedic movement that would display its supremacy over all governments and other bodies hostile to the development of individual consciousness. As we are reminded by one of his biographers, Wells had already foreseen for more than ten years “that the inconsistencies of politicians, the concessions made to the electoral body, the trend of following public opinion instead of guiding it, will cast an increasingly serious discredit upon Western democracies.” He also originated the idea of an “open conspiracy” against “spiritual confusion, the lack of courage, indolence, and a wasteful selfishness.”
Contrary to the time when a journalist like Diderot could bring together select famous contributors to compile articles, “for gentlemen by gentlemen,” that were truly devoid of propaganda and advertising, Wells said the new encyclopedia should be elaborated by highly qualified authorities and updated at the same pace as the advance of research in every domain. This should be the “mental background of every intelligent man,” an “organization that would extend like a nervous system supervising the world, a network connecting all intellectual workers through their shared interests and by a common means of expression, tending to become an increasingly conscious cooperative unit.”
This “imperative expansion of the scale of the community in which we have to live” should be used to our benefit by placing the whole of our ideas and knowledge in a network; “this encyclopedic organization need not now be concentrated in one place” nor be materialized in a row of volumes that have been printed and distributed once and for all. What other means besides printing could be used, then? As the electronic offshoot known as the Internet had not yet come into the most imaginative mind, it was microfilm that carried the perspectives of Utopia in 1937. All that was needed was the support to be provided by cheap, mass-produced, standardized projectors so that “any student, in any part of the world, will be able to sit with his projector in his study at his or her convenience to examine any book and any document, in an exact replica.”
With the totalitarian shadow already hovering during these years, such an arrangement would furthermore allow the exact and integral duplication of the world brain “in Peru, China, Iceland, Central Africa, or wherever else seems to afford an insurance against danger and interruption. It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba.”
If 1938 Europe had not suddenly accelerated its race to catastrophe, Wells could well have witnessed the fulfillment of his plan. The Congress of August 19 and 20, 1937, that he organized in Paris under the patronage of an embryo of Unesco brought together precursors (Paul Otlet, inventor of the Mundaneum, G. W. Davies, founder of the American Documentation Institute, and so forth) and donors, mainly American, such as the Kodak Company, whose mouth was already watering. Whatever it may have been, we can see that the dream imposed a serious weight from the onset: the Wellsian brain would have involved a centralized structure that would have been administratively overburdened and fraught with dangers. This is how The Shape of Things to Come (1933) describes a permanent world encyclopedia headquartered in Barcelona: it “collects, classifies, preserves in order and makes available all that is known” while employing seventeen million people in every country of the world.
Instead of which, we have the libertarian system of the Web--lurking just beneath the surface of Well’s desire--that pulses like an amoeba in everyone’s home and nowhere simultaneously; and while it is easy to make money from it, censors and bureaucrats struggle to control it. It is up to everyone to find his or her own way, which is a good thing. But this avatar of the humanist dream bearing peace and harmony thanks to the manna from science could well lead, in opposition to Wells’s world brain, to the emergence of a global brain, cobbled together on a daily basis by the user. We would then be talking about, rather, what some people consider to be a communal brain pudding.
In the future “there will not be an illiterate left in the world. There will hardly be a single person who is uninformed or misinformed.” Herbert George Wells apparently sincerely believed in the potential benefits of the collective effort of intelligent individuals toward increasing intelligence. George Orwell found him naive.
The Great Digitization and the Quest to Know Everything
• Reveals the danger digitized books pose to the very idea of “free” reading
• Poses the questions society should be asking itself before heedlessly embracing this brave new world
The digitization of books is an immense blessing for the exchange and diffusion of knowledge, enabling access in even the most remote locations. Yet this new technology has awakened perils as dangerous as those that reduced libraries to ashes in ancient Alexandria and modern Nazi Germany. The very force that makes it possible for books to reach a global audience also has the power to hold them hostage and even destroy their integrity in a manner that is unprecedented.
Books on Fire author Lucien Polastron points out that the dematerialization of knowledge raises new legal challenges about the quality and authenticity of information. Attempts to create a virtual library are changing the very nature of reading, which has been marked by the act of physically holding and moving forward through an author’s work rather than viewing a series of sound bite length snippets. The transfer of the traditional paper book into a searchable entity on the computer represents a revolution even more dramatic than the one triggered by Gutenberg’s printing press. This revolution is akin to the replacement of the scroll by the codex, which likewise changed the way humans could receive information and structure their thoughts. Yet despite its broad easy access, the profiteers of this new commercial domain may render the very idea of “free” reading obsolete. Polastron poses questions others are ignoring in a headlong rush to embrace what is still a very ambiguous future.