Thursday, May 22, 2014

Forgotten prophet of the Internet

Here is my review of Alex Wright’s book on Paul Otlet, published in Nature this week.


Cataloguing the World:
Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age
Alex Wright
Oxford University Press, New York, 2014
ISBN 978-0-19-993141-5
384 pages, $27.95

The internet is often considered to be one of the key products of the computer age. But as Alex Wright, a former staffer at the New York Times, shows in this meticulously researched book, it has a history that predates digital technology. While the organization of information has challenged us for as long as we have had libraries, the Belgian librarian Paul Otlet conceived in the late nineteenth century of schemes for collection, storage, automated retrieval and remote distribution of the sum total of human knowledge that have clear analogies with the way information today is archived and networked on the web. Wright makes a persuasive case that Otlet – a largely forgotten figure today – deserves to be ranked among the inventors of the internet.

It is possible to push the analogies too far, however, and to his credit Wright attempts to locate Otlet’s work within a broader narrative about the encyclopaedic collation and cataloguing of information. Compendia of knowledge date back at least to Pliny’s Natural History and the cut-and-paste collections of Renaissance scholars such as Conrad Gesner, although these were convenient (and highly popular) digests of typically uncited sources. Otlet, in contrast, sought to collect everything – newspapers, books, pamphlets – and to devise a system for categorizing the contents akin to (indeed, a rival of) the Dewey decimal system. Wright tells a rather poignant story of the elderly, perhaps somewhat senile Otlet stacking up jellyfish on a beach and then placing on top an index card bearing the number 59.33: the code for Coelenterata in his Universal Decimal Classification.

But the real focus of this story is not about antecedents of the internet at all. It concerns the dreams that many shared around the fin de siècle, and again after the First World War, of a utopian world order that united all nations. This was Otlet’s grander vision, to which his collecting and cataloguing schemes were merely instrumental. His efforts to create a repository of all knowledge, called the Palais Mondial (World Palace), were conducted with his friend Henri La Fontaine, the Belgian politician and committed internationalist who was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1913. The two men imagined setting up an “intellectual parliament” for all humanity. In part, their vision paved the way for the League of Nations and subsequently the United Nations – although Otlet was devastated when the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 elected to establish the former in Geneva in neutral Switzerland rather than in Brussels, where his Palais Mondial was situated. But in part, their objective amounted to something far more grandiose, utopian and strange.

While world government was desired by many progressive, left-leaning thinkers, such as H. G. Wells (who Otlet read), during the inter-war period, Otlet’s own plans often seemed detached from mundane realities, which left leaders and politicians unconvinced and doomed Otlet to constant frustration and ultimate failure. When Henry James dismisses the scheme Otlet concocted with a Norwegian-American architect to construct an immense “World City”, you can’t help feeling he has put his finger on the problem: “The World is a prodigious & portentous & immeasurable affair… so far vaster in complexity than you or me”.

Wright overlooks the real heritage of these ideas of Otlet’s. They veered into mystical notions of transcendence of the human spirit, influenced by Theosophy, and Otlet seems to have imagined that learning could be transmitted not by careful study of documents but by a kind of symbolic visual language condensed into posters and displays. The complex of buildings called the Mundaneum that he planned with the architect Le Corbusier was full of sacred symbolism, as much a temple as a library/university/museum. Here Otlet’s predecessor is not Gesner but the Italian philosopher Tommaso Campanella, who in 1602 described a utopian “City of the Sun” in which knowledge was imbibed by the citizens from great, complex paintings on the city walls. This aspect of Otlet’s dreams makes them as much backward-looking to Neoplatonism and Gnosticism as they are forward-looking to the information age and the internet.

But the future was there too, for example in Otlet’s advocacy of the miniaturization of documents (on microfilm) and his plans for automatic systems that could locate information like steampunk search engines. He considered that his vast collection of information at the proposed Mundaneum (the real structure never actually amounted to more than a corner of the Palais Mondial, from which he was rudely ejected in 1924 by the Belgian government) might be broadcast to users worldwide by radio, and stored in a kind of personal workstation called a Mondotheque, equipped with microfilm reader, telephone, television and record player.

All this can be correlated with the software and hardware of today. But Wright recognizes that the comparison only goes so far. In particular, Otlet’s vision was consistent with the social climate of his day: centralized, highly managed and hierarchical, quite unlike the distributed, self-organized peer-to-peer networks concocted by anti-establishment computer wizards in the 1960s and 70s. And while our ability now to access an online scan of Newton’s Principia would have delighted Otlet, the fact that so much more of our network traffic involves cute cats and pornography would have devastated him.

The poor man was devastated enough. After losing government support in 1934, Otlet managed to cling to a corner of the Palais Mondial until much of his collection was destroyed by the Nazis in 1940. He salvaged a little, and it mouldered for two decades in various buildings in Brussels. What remains now sits securely but modestly in the Mundaneum in Mons – not a grand monument but a former garage. But there is another Mundaneum in Brussels: a conference room given that name in Google’s European bureau. It is a fitting tribute, and Wright has offered another.

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