I'm From the Internet And I'm Here To Help

Hey, read this. When I did, I suddenly felt proud for the first time in a long time to say I work for the Internet. Or, as H.G. Wells called it in 1937, the "permanent world encyclopaedia."

It is probable that the idea of an encyclopaedia may undergo very considerable extension and elaboration in the near future. Its full possibilities have still to be realized. The encyclopaedias of the past have sufficed for the needs of a cultivated minority. They were written "for gentlemen by gentlemen" in a world wherein universal education was unthought of, and where the institutions of modern democracy with universal suffrage, so necessary in many respects, so difficult and dangerous in their working, had still to appear. Throughout the nineteenth century encyclopaedias followed the eighteenth-century scale and pattern, in spite both of a gigantic increase in recorded knowledge and of a still more gigantic growth in the numbers of human beings requiring accurate and easily accessible information. At first this disproportion was scarcely noted, and its consequences not at all. But many people now are coming to recognize that our contemporary encyclopaedias are still in the coach-and-horses phase of development, rather than in the phase of the automobile and the aeroplane. Encyclopaedic enterprise has not kept pace with material progress. These observers realize that modern facilities of transport, radio, photographic reproduction and so forth are rendering practicable a much more fully succinct and accessible assembly of fact and ideas than was ever possible before.

Concurrently with these realizations there is a growing discontent with the part played by the universities, schools and libraries in the intellectual life of mankind. Universities multiply, schools of every grade and type increase, but they do not enlarge their scope to anything like the urgent demands of this troubled and dangerous age. They do not perform the task nor exercise the authority that might reasonably be attributed to the thought and knowledge organization of the world. It is not, as it should be, a case of larger and more powerful universities co-operating more and more intimately, but of many more universities of the old type, mostly ill-endowed and uncertainly endowed, keeping at the old educational level.

Both the assembling and the distribution of knowledge in the world at present are extremely ineffective, and thinkers of the forward-looking type whose ideas we are now considering, are beginning to realize that the most hopeful line for the development of our racial intelligence lies rather in the direction of creating a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing and release of knowledge, than in any further tinkering with the highly conservative and resistant university system, local, national and traditional in texture, which already exists. These innovators, who may be dreamers today, but who hope to become very active organizers tomorrow, project a unified, if not a centralized, world organ to "pull the mind of the world together", which will be not so much a rival to the universities, as a supplementary and co-ordinating addition to their educational activities - on a planetary scale.

The phrase "Permanent World Encyclopaedia" conveys the gist of these ideas. As the core of such an institution would be a world synthesis of bibliography and documentation with the indexed archives of the world. A great number of workers would be engaged perpetually in perfecting this index of human knowledge and keeping it up to date. Concurrently, the resources of micro-photography, as yet only in their infancy, will be creating a concentrated visual record.

If you read the entire thing, you will get a strange sense of deja vu. You're on the Permanent World Encyclopaedia right now. We all recently emerged from a battle to protect that collective project we've been working on (some of us most of our lives), so it would be really sad to think we'll be defending it again soon. Oh crap, the same guy is at it again!

I get to index human knowledge - my own and that of others - on a daily basis and feel grateful for that. I polish it off with my opinion (sometimes, this is like polishing a turd on your lawn) and sort what I find interesting, further processing it. It's like an assembly line of information. Other brains come along and sort it even deeper - some of them by hurling insults - and so the world editing project goes on.

Maybe Wells was a globalist prick by the time he wrote this but he nailed the Internet, and perhaps foresaw whatever indexes us while we're busy out there indexing everything else for it. Humanity has mapped out its collective knowledge freely and openly; sharing amongst ourselves is the goal but sharing what we know with those who might want to stifle our mental processes is the consequence.

And then there's this bit published in the Journal of the American Society for Information Science in 1999. It's funny to read now with 16 Gb memory cards and 32 Gb devices and hard drives that seem to hold everything, despite human beings rapidly and constantly adding to their data hoards. Pictures. Music. Video. Video games.

Perhaps part of the brain image’s contemporary seductiveness lies in the way in which it seems to permit an imperceptible modulation of description and analysis from the metaphorical to the material and back again. Most current invocations of Wells’s ideas about a World Brain, however, can be described as superficial, selective and nearly always en passant. The references to it are essentially incantatory. Almost casually, for example, the distinguished information scientist, Michael Lesk, recently concluded a paper disseminated on the Web with the observation that current trends suggest that "there will be enough disk space and tape storage in the world to store everything people write, say, perform, or photograph. For writing this is true already; for others it is only a year or two away." Lesk does not question the desirability of this appalling prospect, but concludes that we are now on the verge of realising that "brain" organisation that Wells envisioned. "We could build a real ‘World Encyclopedia’ with a true ‘planetary memory for all mankind’ as Wells wrote in 1938’", Lesk observed. He mentions that Wells had talked of "knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest." "We could do it," says Lesk (Lesk, 1997, p.5). But would we want to do it?

Too late. We did.

Just one proud curator of the World Brain,

Jr Deputy Accountant

Some say he’s half man half fish, others say he’s more of a seventy/thirty split. Either way he’s a fishy bastard.