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The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World | Brain Pickings

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World | Brain Pickings.

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web.

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Otlet tried to assemble a great catalog of the world’s published information, create an encyclopedic atlas of human knowledge, build a network of federated museums and other cultural institutions, and establish a World City that would serve as the headquarters for a new world government. For Otlet these were not disconnected activities but part of a larger vision of worldwide harmony. In his later years he started to describe the Mundaneum in transcendental terms, envisioning his global knowledge network as something akin to a universal consciousness and as a gateway to collective enlightenment.

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What the Nazis saw as a “pile of rubbish,” Otlet saw as the foundation for a global network that, one day, would make knowledge freely available to people all over the world. In 1934, he described his vision for a system of networked computers — “electric telescopes,” he called them — that would allow people to search through millions of interlinked documents, images, and audio and video files. He imagined that individuals would have desktop workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen and multiple movable surfaces — connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources on whatever topics might interest them. As the network spread, it would unite individuals and institutions of all stripes — from local bookstores and classrooms to universities and governments. The system would also feature so-called selection machines capable of pinpointing a particular passage or individual fact in a document stored on microfilm, retrieved via a mechanical indexing and retrieval tool. He dubbed the whole thing a réseau mondial: a “worldwide network” or, as the scholar Charles van den Heuvel puts it, an “analog World Wide Web.”

Twenty-five years before the first microchip, forty years before the first personal computer, and fifty years before the first Web browser, Paul Otlet had envisioned something very much like today’s Internet.

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Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of [its] memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.

Otlet’s prescience, Wright notes, didn’t end there — he also envisioned speech recognition tools, wireless networks that would enable people to upload files to remote servers, social networks and virtual communities around individual pieces of media that would allow people to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus,” and even concepts we are yet to crack with our present technology, such as transmitting sensory experiences like smell and taste.

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By today’s standards, Otlet’s proto-Web was a clumsy affair, relying on a patchwork system of index cards, file cabinets, telegraph machines, and a small army of clerical workers. But in his writing he looked far ahead to a future in which networks circled the globe and data could travel freely. Moreover, he imagined a wide range of expression taking shape across the network: distributed encyclopedias, virtual classrooms, three-dimensional information spaces, social networks, and other forms of knowledge that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.

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The contemporary construct of “the user” that underlies so much software design figures nowhere in Otlet’s work. He saw the mission of the Mundaneum as benefiting humanity as a whole, rather than serving the whims of individuals. While he imagined personalized workstations (those Mondotheques), he never envisioned the network along the lines of a client-server “architecture” (a term that would not come into being for another two decades). Instead, each machine would act as a kind of “dumb” terminal, fetching and displaying material stored in a central location.

The counterculture programmers who paved the way for the Web believed they were participating in a process of personal liberation. Otlet saw it as a collective undertaking, one dedicated to a higher purpose than mere personal gratification. And while he might well have been flummoxed by the anything-goes ethos of present-day social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, he also imagined a system that allowed groups of individuals to take part in collaborative experiences like lectures, opera performances, or scholarly meetings, where they might “applaud” or “give ovations.” It seems a short conceptual hop from here to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button.

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Would the Internet have turned out any differently had Paul Otlet’s vision come to fruition? Counterfactual history is a fool’s game, but it is perhaps worth considering a few possible lessons from the Mundaneum. First and foremost, Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money — something he never succeeded at doing — but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress for humanity as a whole. The Mundaneum was to remain, as he said, “pure.” While many entrepreneurs vow to “change the world” in one way or another, the high-tech industry’s particular brand of utopianism almost always carries with it an underlying strain of free-market ideology: a preference for private enterprise over central planning and a distrust of large organizational structures. This faith in the power of “bottom-up” initiatives has long been a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture, and one that all but precludes the possibility of a large-scale knowledge network emanating from anywhere but the private sector.

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