World Brain Teasers: Handicapping H. G. Wells

H g wells H. G. Wells lobbied widely in the 1920's and 30's for something he called a “World Brain,” a continuously updated Global Encyclopedia containing the sum total of human knowledge. He described it with terms we might call “cybernetic” now, although Norbert Wiener wouldn't write a book with that name for more than a decade. Did Wells really predict the Internet? Not really. The enabling technology would have been unimaginable for him. But he was on the right track.

Wells was already a pretty damned good forecaster by that point. It's easy enough to check out his predictions for the 20th Century in an uncopyrighted (at least in the 1902 book called Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress Upon Human Life and Thought For road travel, for example, he predicted use of the “motor truck,” the “motor carriage,” and the “motor omnibus.”

That's “tractor trailer,” “car,” and “bus” to you. From that he extrapolated a new kind of road that “will be very different from macadamized roads; they will be used only by soft-tired conveyances; the battering horseshoes, the perpetual filth of horse traffic, and the clumsy wheels of laden carts will never wear them.” And from that he was able to predict that the United States would become the home of suburban sprawl.

He even saw coming … well, almost … together with a continued need for shopping centers. He wrote: “(F)or all such “shopping” as one cannot do by telephone or postcard (okay, okay – I said almost!), it will still be natural for the shops to be gathered together in some central place.” He went on:

“And so, though the centre will probably still remain the centre … it will be essentially a bazaar, a great gallery of shops and places of concourse and rendezvous, a pedestrian place, its pathways reinforced by lifts and moving platforms, and shielded from the weather, and altogether a very spacious, brilliant, and entertaining agglomeration.”

Did you catch that? The guy predicted shopping malls, for crying out loud. In 1902! It wouldn't have been surprising if he had foreseen the Yogurt Hut and Urban Outfitters while he was at it. He didn't do as well at global issues. He predicted a disastrous conflict that would eliminate the ruling oligarchies of the 20th Century, replacing them with the more enlightened intellectual meritocracy of a “New Republic.”

So he got a Big Question wrong. But how about those shopping malls? And he predicted dishwashing liquids, too. (I'm not making that up.)

His big-picture vision improved with 1914's The World Set Free, when Wells predicted the invention and use of atomic weaponry. As the War to End All Wars flared into existence he wrote that “nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the early twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands.”

What else did Wells predict? Commercial television … VCRs … gas warfare (like the mustard gas which injured my grandfather in World War I) … automatic doors … Twitter … (well, maybe not Twitter.)

About that World Brain … He described his work as “research in a field to which scientific standing is not generally accorded … constructive sociology, the science of social organization. This is a special sub-section of human ecology … (which) surveys the species Homo sapiens as a whole in space and time.” Gregory Bateson fans, take note.

Wells wrote of “the terrifying sense of insufficient mental equipment (which dawned) upon some of us who watched the birth of the League of Nations,” complaining that “the Peace Conference at Versailles did not use anything but a small fraction of the political and economic wisdom that already existed in human brains …”

The World Brain was his answer. But how could humanity's knowledge be assembled in one place, then spread across the world? Through the wonders of a new technology: microfilm. Wells wrote that “the American microfilm experts, even now, are making facsimiles of the rarest, books, manuscripts, pictures and specimens, which can then be made easily accessible upon the library screen. By means of the microfilm, the rarest and most intricate documents and articles can be studied now at first hand simultaneously in a score of projection rooms.”

There you have it: The world brain as seen through flyspecked lenses, illuminated by hot bulbs in projection rooms all over the world. That was Wells' vision of a World Brain, and from it he grew lyrical and cybernetic in his interpretations: “(The microfilm project) foreshadows a real intellectual unification of our race. The whole human memory can be … made accessible to every individual … Photography affords now every facility for multiplying duplicates of this – which we may call? – the new all-human cerebrum.”

There's more soaring rhetoric, including the notion of a “complete planetary memory,” leading to this vision: “You can see how such an Encyclopaedic organization could spread like a nervous network, a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world … into a more and more conscious co-operating unity …”

But this is H. G. Wells speaking, not Jimmy Wales, so he didn't envision an egalitarian Wikipedia model. Instead he called for “a general editorial board and of departmental boards,” “permanent bodies” with buildings, staff, and nothing like what we now call “user-defined content.” Wells’ World Brain was to today’s Internet what the Supreme Court is to American Idol. Yet the user-defined model is more efficient, especially if self-policing continues to improve. And if you combine Wells' vision with E. M. Forster's in The Machine Stops you'll have something very much like today's Web. Of course, a lot will be missing, like LOLCats and Perez Hilton.

Not to mention sex. GOOD Magazine says (in a pseudo-erotic video, of course) that 12 percent of all Web sites are porn, 25 percent of all search engine requests are for porn, 35 percent of all Internet downloads are pornographic, and $2.84 billion in revenue was generated from U.S. porn sites in 2006.

Ol’ H. G. didn’t see that coming. But then, not everybody buys those statistics anyway. This ACLU study says that only 1% of the Net is pornographic. But even 1% of the Internet represents a massive computational engine working day and night to generate an orgiastic miasma of text, sound, and images.

So, our rating of Wells' forecasting is: Not perfect, but uncanny. To be fair, the World Brain was more a proposal than a prediction. But in all his work, Wells seemed to sway dangerously between Utopia and Apocalypse, embracing the future while at the same time dreading what it might provide.

“Humanity is like a leper woman who has given birth in the dark,” said Chuang Tzu, “and now looks for a candle while screaming in terror lest the child look like herself.” Not a politically correct image these days, but a fair description of Wells' gift for anticipating both the best and the worst of the future. Now, if he could only have predicted LOLCats …