George Dyson visited Google last week at the invitation of some Google engineers. The occasion was the 60th anniversary of John von Neumann’s proposal for a digital computer. After the visit, Dyson recalled H.G. Wells’ prophecy, written in 1938:
“The whole human memory can be, and probably in a short time will be, made accessible to every individual,” wrote H. G. Wells in his 1938 prophecy World Brain. “This new all-human cerebrum need not be concentrated in any one single place. 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.” Wells foresaw not only the distributed intelligence of the World Wide Web, but the inevitability that this intelligence would coalesce, and that power, as well as knowledge, would fall under its domain. “In a universal organization and clarification of knowledge and ideas… in the evocation, that is, of what I have here called a World Brain… in that and in that alone, it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for world affairs… We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself.”
GEORGE DYSON, a historian among futurists, is the author of Darwin Among the Machines; and Project Orion: The True Story of the Atomic Spaceship.