Saturday, January 23, 2010

760: on wells' contribution to the new encyclopédie française

I always find these historical perspectives fascinating. Like early 20th century essays about how Babbage's difference engine would eliminate human toil, Wells' essay falls somewhere in the long line of arguments for the humane application of technology to solve the world's ills.

With the exception of scale, the conditions Wells describes in 1937 are apparent and relevant today: "... gigantic increase in recorded knowledge and of a still more gigantic growth in the numbers of human beings requiring accurate and easily accessible information" (83). He could be describing the knowledge management challenges of any modern-day organization, regardless of size. Yet, throughout the essay I had to resist the urge to compare Wells' system to the web or modern knowledge management systems, which I think is an easy move to make. Wells seems to be envisioning a reactive system that attempts to catalog existing facts -- what is currently known and understood. "There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge ... a complete planetary memory of all mankind" (85). His system is not necessarily a vision of the modern web in that it does not seem to account for the active creation of knowledge -- of the artifact being created, synthesized, coordinated, and applied as new knowledge is created.

From a systems perspective, Wells seems quite ingenious. "It need not be vulnerable as a human head or a human heart is vulnerable. It can be reproduced exactly and fully... It can have at once, the concentration of a craniate animal and the diffused vitality of an amoeba" (87). In this simple metaphor, Wells describes a distributed physical topography with fail-over redundancy. That's geekily impressive. The difficulty of implementing his system -- I think -- would be creating and maintaining a centralized logical topography using the technologies of the day available to Wells. But practical implementation doesn't seem necessarily important to the essay. Wells is predicting the capabilities of future technologies that will make the encyclopedia possible.

I do wonder about Wells denouncement of the university system of his day. Was he calling on universities to be the drivers and shapers of the new encyclopedic enterprise? Was he commenting on the state of higher education at the time -- against a backdrop of world wars, despotism, rampant nationalism, etc.? I do understand that universities of the time were the repositories and distributors of knowledge -- accessible, controlled and coordinated by an elite few. Was it this structure that Wells was addressing? His denouncement, however, doesn't seem to jive with his overall claim that world peace could be achieved through a common human knowledge system (88). This claim aligns Wells with 19th century positivism -- the careful study of the scientific method by a small group of elite intellectuals leading to an objective and therefore universal view of the world. Was Wells arguing to shift control of knowledge from the universities to the "competent editors, educational directors and teachers..." (88)? How would Wells' system self-correct when incompetence or intentional mis-information was introduced into the encyclopedia? How does Wells make accommodations for human nature?

I like the way Wells writes. I like his eclectic nature and admire the way he expressed meaningful ideas in times that demanded clarity. I'll remember this little essay.

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