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Major Roy James Blakeley (December 10, 1928 - July 22, 1965) - USAF (KIA)

When I was young my dad would say
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No matter how many years go by
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[This is a summary version by Larry Blakeley]

What exactly is the Wellsian World Brain or World Encyclopaedia ideas to which reference is so often made? What did they mean for Wells? What might they mean for us? This paper examines closely what Wells says about it in his book, World Brain (1938), and in a number of works that elaborate what is expressed there. The paper discusses aspects of the context within which Wells' conception of a new world encyclopaedia organisation was formulated and its role in the main thrust of his thought. The paper argues that Wells' ideas about a World Brain are embedded in a structure of thought that may be shown to entail on the one hand notions of social repression and control that must give us pause, and on the other ideas about the nature and organisation of knowledge that may well be no longer acceptable. By examining Wells' World Brain ideas in some detail and attempting to articulate the systems of belief which shaped them and which otherwise lie silent beneath them, the author hopes to provoke questions about current ideas about the nature of global information systems and emergent intelligence.

In 1938, aged 72, H.G. Wells published in American and English editions his little book of essays and speeches titled, World Brain. At this time of his life, Wells was an internationally famous literary figure. His books, fiction and nonfiction alike, were popular and widely translated. He had access to the leading statesman of his day. Though World Brain marked an important stage in his writing, it was by no means the last of his books. His voluminous output of fiction, social criticism, and journalism continued up to the year of his death in 1946.

Despite the great length of his career, Wells is perhaps best known today for a group of novels of science fiction that appeared in the last years of the nineteenth century and of social realism that appeared early in the twentieth, though his first book was a textbook of biology that went through numerous editions (Wells, 1893 and, e.g., 1929). This work reflected his years as biology student and disciple of T.H. Huxley at what later became Imperial College of Science and Technology (Wells, 1934a, pp.159-165).

Wells was utopian social reformer. He was intrigued by socialism and was caught up for a time before the First World War with Beatrice and Sidney Webb, George Bernard Shaw and others in the Fabian Society. After the War he became increasingly and passionately dedicated to the idea that a new kind of world order was needed. In this connection he witnessed the rise of the fascism and the Russian communist State with a curious ambivalence. As contemptuously critical as he was, especially of the fascist dictators, he seemed on occasion to suggest that their totalitarian regimes represented stages in the evolution of the new kind of single, unified World State that he believed was an inevitable (Wells 1933, p. 123-128; 1934, pp.215-216; 1940-41, pp.1170-73, ch.40).

Wells was also a great autodidact and populariser of contemporary knowledge. His Outline of History (Wells 1919), Work Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (Wells, 1931b), and the Science of Life (Wells, Huxley and Wells 1931), the last prepared collaboratively with his son Gyp and Julian Huxley, T.H. Huxley’s grandson and himself a distinguished biologist, represent quite extraordinary feats of comprehensive, intelligible, plainly written synthesis.

The ideas that Wells finally pulled together in World Brain had a long gestation in his earlier writing and were profoundly important to him. They focused, as we will see, important aspects of his thinking about evolution, social reform, and world organisation. The book was, and continues to be, influential. World Brain, has been reprinted twice in the last twenty five years or so (Wells, 1971; 1994). Alan Mayne’s 1994 edition, contains a comprehensive but by no means complete bibliography of more than 200 items about the World Brain and related matters. Mayne’s introductory essay, almost half as long as Wells' text, suggests in some detail what today needs to be done in order to achieve finally what Well’s had proposed more than half a century ago (Mayne, 1994).

Information scientists and others concerned with the creation of systems for the organisation, communication and retrieval of information constitute one group who continue to be inspired by Wells (Davis, 1937, 1965; Kochen, 1965,1967, 1972, 1975’ Garfield, e.g. 1964, 1964a, 1967, 1968, 1975, 1976; case, 1977; Lesk 1997; Petersen 1996; Shenk,1997). The World Brain or Global Brain trope also seems to be widely employed by those who speculate about the nature and impacts of the contemporary global communications infrastructure and its future development. Their focus is the Internet and the World Wide Web, from which they believe an "actual" global mind is emerging. The members of the Principia Cybernetic Group are very much concerned with these notions (1). Sometimes their work refers to Wells, but on the whole it does not (Judge, 1980, Goetzel, 1998; Heylighen 1996, 1997; Mayer-Kress 1995a, b,).

Perhaps part of the brain image’s contemporary seductiveness lies in the way in which it seems to permit an imperceptible modulation of description and analysis from the metaphorical to the material and back again. Most current invocations of Wells' ideas about a World Brain, however, can be described as superficial, selective and nearly always en passant. The references to it are essentially incantatory. Almost casually, for example, the distinguished information scientist, Michael Lesk http://www.larryblakeley.com/experts/Michael_Lesk/michael_lesk.htm recently concluded a paper disseminated on the Web with the observation that current trends suggest that "there will be enough disk space and tape storage in the world to store everything people write, say, perform, or photograph. For writing this is true already; for others it is only a year or two away." Lesk does not question the desirability of this appalling prospect, but concludes that we are now on the verge of realising that "brain" organisation that Wells envisioned. "We could build a real ‘World Encyclopedia’ with a true ‘planetary memory for all mankind’ as Wells wrote in 1938’," Lesk observed. He mentions that Wells had talked of "knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest." "We could do it," says Lesk (Lesk, 1997, p.5). But would we want to do it?

By examining Wells' World Brain ideas in some detail and attempting to articulate the systems of belief which shaped them and which otherwise lie silent beneath them, I hope to provoke - though I do not attempt to answer - questions about current ideas of the nature of global information systems and emergent intelligence. Implicit in the concept of "Brain" is some notion of central direction and control that is exercised over some thing both consciously as a matter of intelligence and informed judgement and automatically. How do proposals for the World or Global Brain encompass these notions? Of what, for example, is the World or Global Brain a part — what is its body? How does it manifest intelligence and informed judgement? How do the systems which constitute the "World Brain" require individuals to discipline their interests and behaviour, to configure themselves in conformity with these systems. To what extent is the independence and initiative of both individuals and particular groups threatened in a social and political regime ordered by current conceptions of a global brain? To what extent is what is designed a conscious or unconscious reflection of the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies, the cognitive and imaginative limitations of the system designers or those who have commissioned and paid for such systems? To what extent are these systems necessarily an embodiment of the cultural circumstances of time and place, the reflection of a particular world view? How might an "emergent" intelligence transcend these limitations?

The argument of this paper is that Wells' ideas about a World Brain, as startling and resonant as they seem to be, are nevertheless embedded in a structure of thought that may be shown to entail on the one hand notions of social repression and control that must give us pause, and on the other ideas about the nature and organisation of knowledge that may well be no longer acceptable. I ask: what exactly is the Wellsian World Brain or World Encyclopaedia ideas to which reference is so often made? With what social and political institutions are the texts which present Wells World Brain ideas articulated? What tacit temporally and culturally situated codes of ethics do they entail? How are World brain ideas underpinned by, or an expression of, Wells' fundamental beliefs about mankind, government and society?

I examine closely what Wells says about the World Brain in his book of that name and in a number of works that elaborate what is expressed there. Moving beyond these descriptive limitations, I try to better understand aspects of the context within which Wells' conception of a new world encyclopaedia organisation was formulated and its role in the main thrust of his thought.

I argue that attempting to unravel the nature and structure of these beliefs will not only affect our attitudes towards his World Brain ideas. They should influence our assessment of their continuing relevance, though to undertake that assessment is not the purpose of this paper beyond highlighting the issues of power and control, the "political-social" problematic that modern proposals for a World or Global Brain necessarily raise.

In the final analysis, then, it is possible to describe Wells' the World Brain in this way. It is the latest and greatest expression of socio-biological evolution. It is to be the organ that will be at once shaped by, and responsible for, the ultimate success of that "open conspiracy" by means of which scientists and others will create a new world order. As a fundamental aspect of this new world order, it will provide the information necessary for the suppression of dissent and diversity. It will be under the control of an anti-individualist, anti-democratic administrative and scholarly elite, the Competent Receiver and the grandiosely named order of Samurai. These "officials" will carry out their duties and sustain their repressive regimes administratively on the basis of knowledge derived from a huge database in which is integrated information about all aspects of the lives of the citizens under their care. They are to manage broader socio-biological matters relating to the immediate welfare and evolutionary development of the human race, including weeding out the unfit for detention or destruction. The information they need to discharge these responsibilities will be derived from what is no more than a "properly vetted" "arrangement of notes." These notes are to be provided by the personnel constituting the World Brain organisation. These are the "carefully assembled sequence" of "selections, extracts, and quotations" that Wells identifies as grist for the World Brain’s cognitive mill (Wells, 1938, pp. 14-15). They are, conceptually no more than an extension of his own notebooks. The World Brain is simply Wells' brain writ large.

Conclusion

Wells' vision of a World brain is troubling in and of itself. But it also raises issues of a broader kind that pose a challenge to contemporary accounts of the Word or Global Brain, whether they echo Wells or not. All of these accounts embrace a kind of evolutionary determinism which suggests that a new kind of sentient super-organism is emerging from the complex social arrangements by which we live our lives. What is being referred to is not simply the modification of existing or even the development of new social and personal arrangements to accommodate new political realities (the new Europe for example) or technological innovation (such as the motor car, the telephone or the Television). Something far beyond the ken of ordinary people and "alive" is envisaged. It is alive also in a way that requires the subordination of the will, intelligence and interests of ordinary people. As individuals are subsumed by or absorbed into it, their independence and instrumentality in their own lives are inevitably curtailed in the expectation of general social betterment rather than an enhancement of individual potential. It is neither tool nor prosthesis but may be interpreted as becoming an expression of totalitarian values and authoritarian control.

World Brain or Global Brain proponents tend to extrapolate quite extravagantly the capabilities and implications of emerging technology. For Wells it was microfilm. Today it is the infinitely more sophisticated Internet and World Wide Web which have enmeshed our globe in a fantastically intricate and diffused communications infrastructure. By means of this technology as World or Global Brain proponents imagine it taking shape, the effective deployment of the entire universe of knowledge will become possible. But this begs unresolved questions about the relative value of the individual and the state, about the nature of individual and social benefits and how they are best to be allocated, about what constitutes freedom and how it might be appropriately constrained. It flies in the face of the intransigent reality that what constitutes the ever-expanding store of human knowledge is almost incalculably massive in scale, is largely viewpoint-dependent, is fragmented, complex, ceaselessly in dispute and always under revision.

Finally, one might ask what happens to individuals and to society when the World or Global Brain malfunctions, whether within the limits of normality or pathologically? What do the limitations and failures that characterise the human brain and with which we are all too familiar, mean for the World or Global Brain? At the level of the psychopathology of everyday life, through slips of the tongue, misunderstandings, preconceptions, failures of recall, inability to assimilate new ideas, lapses of attention, forgetting, dreams and daydreams, the mind and so the brain is forever tripping us up, letting us down, tricking us, unexpectedly revealing clues to subterranean depths. The human brain is the site of what is irrational as well as what is rational -- and presumably this has implications for the World Brain. Moreover, if we go from the normal to the pathological, how do we deal with the notion of a World Brain that is schizophrenic, demented, subject to cerebral haemorrhage or massive stroke.

Issues such as these are provoked by Wells' account of the World Brain and are implicit in any modern discussion of the idea, whether at the level of metaphor or of a kind of emergent cyborg reality. If the idea is to be useful and its practical realisation convincingly argued, issues such as these must be satisfactorily resolved. - "H.G. Wells' Idea of a World Brain: A Critical Re-Assessment," Boyd Rayward,
School of Information, Library and Archive Studies, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. http://alexia.lis.uiuc.edu/~wrayward/Wellss_Idea_of_World_Brain.htm

This paper has been published in Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50 (May 15, 1999): 557-579

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

This paper is based on work completed as George A. Miller Visiting Professor in the University of Illinois during the academic year 1997/8. The author offers thanks to the Centre for Advanced Studies/Miller Committee and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science for this wonderful opportunity. He also wishes to thank the following for their comments and suggestions: at the University of Illinois: Geof Bowker, Betsy Hearne , Cheryl Malone, Andrew Pickering, the members of the Science, Technology, Information, and Medicine (STIM) Group and the members of the GSLIS Doctoral Proseminar, Michael Buckland at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mathew Skelton at Somerville College, Oxford University.

FOOTNOTES

(1) Their Web site provides access to a range of relevant materials. See, for example, "Basic References on the Global Brain / Superorganism" http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/gbrainref.html and Global Brain discussion list archive by date; http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/~majordom/gbrain/

See in this connection Dilloway (1998)
(3) Reported in a long caption to a picture of Wells planting the tree in the Daily Northwestern and republished in The H.G.Wells Newsletter 2no.4 (Winter 1982/3): 1

(4) Uwe Jochum sees something rather more anticipatory of contemporary developments in Well’s passing references to decentralization and networks than I (Jochum, 1995).

(5) In an earlier paper the author indicated in error that there was no correspondence between Watson Davis and Wells in the Wells Papers at the University of Illinois (Rayward, 1993, p.173). There is in fact a small file with material about Science Service that Davis sent Wells and Wells has annotated a letter from Davis for March 15, 1937)

(6) Pollard was Professor of Physics in Imperial College and had published a translation of the tables for optics of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). The preparation and publication of the UDC was one the raisons d’être of the International Institute of Bibliography which had been set up in Brussels in 1895 by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine (Rayward, 1975, 1997). In 1927 Pollard and Bradford and some other colleagues had created the British Society for International Bibliography as the British member of the International Institute of Bibliography of which Pollard was President from 1827 to 1931. Bradford was the great British apologist for the UDC (Rayward 1975, passim and 1994; Bradford, 1948).

(7) The International Institute of Bibliography had been renamed International Institute of Documentation in 1931 under Pollard’s Presidency.

(8) It is interesting in this context to note that in 1925, discussing the nature of the "microphotic book," Goldschmidt and Otlet in Belgium had already developed a similar idea for microphotographic libraries and a Microphotic Encyclopaedia (Goldschmidt and Otlet, 1925).

(9) I refer for convenience to Wells as the author of this work. He must certainly have been the major author for the parts that I discuss. It is very much his "voice" that one hears in these pages. He describes himself as "the senior member of the firm" who was responsible for "the initiation and organisation of the whole scheme," noting that his contribution was "mainly literary and editorial" (Wells, 1931, p.3).

(10) Wells had scrawled across the top of Johnson’s letter, "This bloody fool has disregarded my explicit condition as to the second titles."

(11) It is interesting to compare Wells with Paul Otlet in this context. Otlet believed that Radio, x-rays, cinema and microscopic photography would all eventually be brought together in such a way to form "a mechanical, collective brain" (Otlet, 1935, pp.390-1), a kind of "exodermic appendage to the brain," "a substratum of memory," "an external mechanism and instrument of the mind"(Otlet 1934, p. 428; also Rayward, 1975, 1994b, 1997). I have not found evidence that Wells knew directly of Otlet’s work though Otlet had begun publishing about what he was to call documentation as early as 1893. Wells' contacts with the European documentation movement that originated with Otlet seems to have been only through the British documentalists, Pollard and Bradford. Otlet over the years had developed his own ideas about a new form of encyclopedia both as an "Office of Documentation" and as an ever-expansible "Book" drawing on a technology of card and cabinet and later microfilm (Rayward, 1994, 1997). Nevertheless in his remarks at the 1937 documentation congress in Paris, at which both he and Wells spoke, Otlet observed, I assume referring to Wells' talk at the congress, that the ultimate aim of documentation "is to realise the World Encyclopaedia according to the needs of the twentieth century" (Rayward, 1976, p. 358).

(12) Wells notes that he eventually had withdrawn the Open Conspiracy and that "this present book replaces it" (p.11).

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This paper has been published in Journal of the American Society for Information Science 50 (May 15, 1999): 557-579