Aug 14

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

HG Wells on the World Brain

Commenting on my Google Library vs. Publishers piece, George Dyson sent me this great piece from HG Wells. I already reposted it to the comments on that blog, but this is enough of a relevant historical artifact that it deserves its own top level posting. (As always, George does an amazing job of reminding us all of how many of the ideas we are wrestling with are not new, just because we finally have the technology to realize them.) Over to George:

in case you haven't blogged H.G. Wells recently, here is the gist of his adress to the world congress of librarians in 1937, and his proposal for a global encyclopedia, that was later published in his 1938 book WORLD BRAIN:

"We want... a universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas... what I have here called a World Brain, operating by an enhanced educational system through the whole body of mankind... a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself...

"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...

"Few people as yet, outside the world of expert librarians and museum curators and so forth, know how manageable well-ordered facts can be made, however multitudinous, and how swiftly and completely even the rarest visions and the most recondite matters can be recalled, once they have been put in place in a well-ordered scheme of reference and reproduction... There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind....

"This... foreshadows a real intellectual unification of our race. The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual. And... this new all-human cerebrum need not be concentrated in any one single place. It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully, 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..."

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Comments: 5

  Rup3rt [08.14.05 04:40 PM]

Here is a slightly better version of the HGW text but the paperware version sounds even more enticing.

  Mike Perry [08.14.05 10:27 PM]

Yes, but who would decide how all that information is synthesized, particularly what is included and excluded? Would contrary points of view be permitted or would it resemble the Ministry of Information in Orwell's 1984? And what would happen to a world with one centrally controlled source of information? Life and literature aren't just the sorts of technical books O'Reilly publishes, as Tim O'Reilly knows quite well. There is a richness to human thought that defies organization.

Read virtually anything H.G. Wells wrote from 1901 on and you're discover that he wanted a world state run by a small cadre of experts. Population was to be controlled, paying particular attention to limit the birthrates of the darker skinned peoples. Here's what he said in Anticipations:

"At the Cape of Good Hope, under British rule, Kaffirs [a disparaging term for African blacks] are being settled upon little inalienable holdins that must inevitably develop in the same direction, and over the Southern States the nigger squats and multiplies. It is fairly certain that these stagnant ponds of population, which will grow until the public intelligence rises to the pitch of draining them, will on a greater scale parallel in the twentieth century the soon-to-be-dispensed urban slums of the nineteenth century." (1924 edition, p. 83.)

In his later books, Wells made his Darwin-inspired racism less overt, but his agenda remained clear, "public intelligence" was to be manipulated so it "rises to" Wells own point of view. Critics of that point of view, including Theodore Roosevelt, who made speeches encouraging (allegedly inferior) Southern and Eastern European immigrants in NYC's "urban slums" to have large families, were to be silenced. Wells said precisely that in A Modern Utopia:

"What, for instance, will Utopia do with Mr. Roosevelt? There drifts across my inner vision the image of a strenuous struggle with Utopian constables, the voice that has thrilled terrestrial millions in eloquent protest. The writ of arrest, drifting loose in the conflict, comes to my feet. I impale the script of paper, and read--but can it be? 'attempted disorganization... incitements to diarrange... the balance of the population." (1905 ed. p. 26-27)

Needless to say, little that Theodore Roosevelt said on population (and the joys of large families) would have made its way into Wells' World Encyclopedia. It was to be as biased as Well's own attempt at writing a history of the world was.

Personally, I'm a bit amazed that people regard Wells as a prophet of The Way the World Ought to Be. What he believed isn't that hard to discover and it is more than a little scary. Here's what George Orwell wrote about him in "Wells, Hitler and the World State" (1941).

"If one looks through nearly any book that [Wells] has written in the last forty years one finds the same idea constantly recurring: the supposed antithesis between the man of science who is working toward a planned World State and the reactionary who is trying to restore a disorderly past. In novels, utopias, essays, films, pamphlets, the antithesis crops up, always more or less the same. On one side science, order, progress, internationalism, aeroplanes, steel, concrete, hygiene; on the other side war, nationalism, religion, monarchy, peasants, Greek professors, poets, horses."

I've nothing against collections of infomation on the Internet. I've contributed to them myself. But label me a "reactionary" when the topic turns to the "intellectual unification" of the human race, and any suggestion that we need one point of view that can be "reproduced exactly and fully" anywhere on earth. That simply doesn't fit with human nature. We like to be different and any attempts to remake us to the contrary will not only fail, they'll fail after imposing enormous human costs. The horrors of the twentieth century demonstrate just that.

Context is everything. Beneath Wells' casual predictions about science lay an agenda every bit as foul as that of Hitler and Stalin. His prediction about the use of aircraft in war, for instance, came because he thought they would be such a perfect terror weapon, particularly when combined with gas bombs, that they could be used to impose his world state on the unwilling. No doubt hs World Encyclopedia had a similar agenda,

Joseph Conrad, for a time a friend of Wells, summarized him perfectly when he wrote, "The difference between us, Wells, is fundamental. You don't care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity but know they are not!"

--Mike Perry, Inkling Books, Seattle

  Ewan Gunn [08.15.05 08:01 AM]

I think perhaps delving too deeply into Wells' views on the 'World Brain' detracts from the fact that a central source of indexed information would be a good thing. With technology available now (Google, for example) that can search a large section of information and pull (relatively) concise results, the need to have a definition that can be "reproduced exactly and fully" is moot - all possible views and definitions on any particular subject can be recalled, and the one pertinent to the researcher can be chosen.

Combined with the recent rise of Wikipedia and other variants, by having user entered information there is far more scope for a more 'balanced' view, or a collection of alternate views on a particular subject. (As I see it perhaps a default principle of the project.) This also counter-acts the bias that could be introduced by a controlled project - the creator (Wells) would have no control over the content, and if he made any changes contrary to public opinion, a member of the public would promptly alter that entry.

In no way am I criticizing your argument Mike (in fact I am quite shocked at Wells' extremism) - I just think that it is missing the forest for the trees a little.

  Dr John S. Partington [08.31.05 01:26 PM]

Wells began considering proposals for a world encyclopaedia around 1915 and was inspired by efforts being made in Russia during his visit in 1920. His first full discussion of a world encyclopaedia occurred in The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931) before being elaborated in much journalism and his book, World Brain. He discussed it in fiction in The Camford Visitation. About Wells's racism, Mike Perry tends to suffer from cultural relativism. Wells wrote Antiipations in 1901 during a British scare concerning national efficiency. Wells wrote disparaging comments about the inefficient of the world, and stated that black, yellow and 'dirty whites', as well as 'unteachable types' would need to be in the descendant so long as they were inefficient. He tones down these views from 1903 in Mankind in the Making when he rejected postive eugenics and advocated sterilisation of the mentally disabled. All these positions would be rejected today, but they were deemed radical in the Edwadian period. Wells himself only advocated eugenics in so far as medical science recommended it, and he rejected judgements based on race altogether (see especially his essay 'Race Prejudice' (1907)). In 1939 Wells elaborated a 'Rights of Man' document and began a worldwide debate. In his book by that title (1940) he rejected eugenics entirely and all other forms of mutilation. Although Rights of Man was not the model for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), it certainly created the climate for that later document. As too Wells's advocacy of world centralism, this was far from the case. He supported functional globalism, highly decentralised, and rejected notions of a world parliament of world government per se. Instead, he saw functional agencies as more efficient models, unable to wield enough power to 'rule' the world, but able to effectively undertake their specific functions. These agencies would be kept under popular control by a series of global juries made up of members of the public, at local levels for local issues; globally for world issues. Some of this was pointed out by W. Warren Wagar's H. G. Wells and the World State (1961) and I focussed more on the technical details in my Building Cosmopolis: The Political Thought of H. G. Wells (2003). In both these works, whitewashing is rejected as is ahistorical ignorance. Wells had some bad ideas, but on the whole his ideas were advanced and have made massive impact on the post-1945 world. His ideas for reigning in belligerant maverick states were not elaborated in enough detail and no one since 1945 has been able to succeed in doing this. Hence, we still have bullying superpowers and smaller pariah states running roughshop over international law. As Wells said, 'Human history is a race between education and catastrophe' - as Wagar said a year or two back, catastrophe is striding ahead.

  Dan DuSoleil [03.21.07 01:01 PM]

Wells wrote the introduction to Sanger's The Pivot of Civilization in 1922. He commends a work that advocates forced sterilizations. Sanger refers to the "unfit," "human waste," "good-for-nothing," "racial mistakes," and "degenerate classes." Her concern for "racial health" would have made a Nazi proud. Sanger labels those "in alms-houses, reformatories, schools for the blind, deaf and mute, in insane asylums, in homes for the feeble-minded and epileptic" as "the dead weight of human waste."
Once Germany took the reins of the eugenics movement it became unpopular back in the states. It appears to me that some "whitewashing" of Wells may still be occurring.

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