Large old library filled with books

Book review: ‘World Brain’ by HG Wells

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Timely reissue for the visionary author’s prediction nearly a century ago of a global encyclopedia that would gather the world’s knowledge and make it freely available to all.

The surest sign of a writer’s fame is when they themselves become a literary hero. This is certainly the case with HG Wells - polymath, prophet, legendary fantasist and one of the 20th century’s most prolific authors - who features as a character and/or a protagonist in a number of works of contemporary fiction. Ronald Wright’s ‘A Scientific Romance’ and Robert Masello’s ‘The Haunting of HG Wells’ are just two.

Wells’ widely known literary and technological predictions range from the time machine, which has not (yet) come true, to the atomic bomb, which regrettably has. His less well-known techno prophecy is that of the 'World Brain'; a pre-digital, freely available ‘World Encyclopaedia’ accumulating the bulk of all human knowledge. This, he believed, would lead to an ideal, perennially peaceful world, with no conflicts or wars and where universal happiness reigns. Wells was - first and foremost - a Utopian thinker.

This timely reissue by the MIT Press of the book ‘World Brain’ ($24.95, ISBN 9780262542562), with a foreword by one of Wells’ modern-day counterparts, science-fiction author Bruce Sterling, collects a series of essays and addresses that were published or delivered to audiences in Britain and America between 1936 and 1938. In them, Wells elaborates on his long-standing idea of creating a permanent encyclopaedia that would evolve as time goes by and result in unlimited “free knowledge” for everyone.

Anybody born and bred in a democracy is likely to take the concept of free knowledge for granted as one of the guaranteed rights a human being automatically acquires at birth. For someone like me, who spent the first 35 years of their life in the totalitarian USSR, where knowledge and information were rationed perhaps even more strictly than food and consumer goods, it will always remain one of life’s main pleasures and wonders.

My first ever big purchase in the West after defecting in 1990 - long before I acquired my first car - was a full set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, a treasure I could hardly afford but was unable to resist. Ten years on, with the development of the Internet and all kinds of computer software, my multi-volume treasure turned into a white elephant and millstone around my neck. I was physically unable to carry it with me on my never-ending travels and eventually had to swap it for just one floppy disk, then later a CD, which contained all of Britannica’s contents plus lots of additional audio and video footage. It was something that even Wells, bent on improving the pre-digital publishing technology (or, in his own words, on “modernising” the existing “distribution of knowledge”) failed to predict.

From the great writer’s point of view, the World Encyclopaedia would be “a row of volumes in one’s own home or in some neighbouring house or in a convenient public library or in any school or college, and in this row of volumes one would, without any great toil or difficulty, find in clear understandable language, and kept up to date, the ruling concepts of our social order, the outlines and main particulars in all fields of knowledge.”

According to Wells, the difference between that multi-volume treasure trove of knowledge and the encyclopaedias, gazetteers and other reference books that already existed was that it would be put together, edited, controlled and constantly altered not by a group of human beings, but by the so-called ‘World Brain’. He envisioned this technological system of networked knowledge as “a hypothetical super-gadget”, although its actual modus operandi remains even more mysterious than the no-less hypothetical time machine that he attempted to describe in his eponymous novel.

The reason why the World Brain cannot be dismissed as just another case of a great writer’s wishful thinking is that Wells was the first to shape a philosophical concept of a free and seemingly limitless repository of knowledge that all citizens of planet Earth could easily access and to which they could all easily contribute. One would be tempted to regard Wikipedia, or the Internet in general, as a full materialisation of his dream. Yet, none of them has so far become ”the greatest power on earth for the consolidation of humanity and the establishment of an enduring Pax for all mankind,” in the way that the Utopian World Brain was meant to.

Will they ever evolve into such a cathartic power? To answer that question, I’m afraid we might all have to jump on board a real - as opposed to Wells’ fictitious - future-bound time machine!

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