The Man Who Envisioned the Internet Before Computers, Without Computers
Decades before even the first microchip, Paul Otlet called for screens at everyone's desk and the creation of a “réseau mondial,” a worldwide network, or web.
Image: Prelinger Archive
There are a few ways to tell "the story of the internet." You've got your military infrastructure turned academic tool, turned loose. And then there's your Whole Earth Catalog, power-to-the-people-in-garages angle. Despite resembling opposites, they're both valid narratives, and how you weigh them usually has more to do with your politics than anything else.
But then there's the story of Paul Otlet. Born long enough ago that he lived in an imperial Belgium, the problems Otlet, a visionary and entrepreneur, hacked away on are the same we deal with today: nationalism, war, and information overload. The solutions Otlet worked for also resonate today, perhaps nowhere more surprisingly than the means by which you're reading this very article.
Decades before even the first microchip, Otlet was calling for screens at everyone's desk and the creation of a "réseau mondial," a worldwide network. Or, yes, a web.
"Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced," Otlet wrote in 1934, imaging a sort of steampunk/Gilliam's Brazil proto-internet, made of index cards, and microfiche. "In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts."
Everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.
Otlet was born in 1868 and spent his life on projects so vast and ambitious—a world-wide web of knowledge, an internationalist world city—that none were really realized in full.
Alex Wright's recently published biography of Otlet, Cataloging the World, paints him as someone whose ideas didn't come to fruition in his own lifetime, but have inched closer to reality since his death. Wright's book documents Otlet as the father of information sciences, and someone whose spiritual heirs could easily include the late Aaron Swartz as well as your local librarian. Otlet thought information was poorly served by being bound in books. While he probably never said that it "wanted to be free," Otlet devoted his life to reducing the friction that keeps it from being shared.
He came of age as the world was being newly wrapped in telegraph wire, the dawn of our information age. With news able to travel at the speed of electrostatic, newspapers proliferated, as did international organizations. Mass production in the 19th century included mass produced literature, and literacy rates rose in Western Europe and America. In order to put some order on the growing amount of published works, information was going to have to be standardized for efficiency's sake. Thus, the card catalog is Ford and Taylorism applied to information: a standardized way to classify information in order to make it easier to access.
Otlet and fellow-Belgian Henri La Fontaine built on the work of Melvil Dewey and his Decimal system to create the Universal Decimal Classification, which is used in over 130 countries and 150,000 libraries today, although Dewey stipulated that it not be translated into English. UDC not only organizes books, but can be applied to any other text, including film and sound recordings, and also allows for interlinking between texts—an analog hyperlink.
Otlet and La Fontaine also fit into the lineage of people who tried to catalog all of the information in the world, or at the very least, create a bibliography of all the world's published knowledge.
Their plan was to organize facts on index cards, and allow people to write in with questions that workers could answer for a fee, which Wright called a sort of "analog search engine" in 2008 New York Times article on the subject. Founded in 1910, the vast paper database reached more than 12 million entries, and served over 1,500 inquiries a year, before the Belgian government cut the funding and Otlet's grand vision began to wear away.
An internationalist whose dreams and homeland were ravaged by two world wars—much of Otlet's life work was destroyed by the Nazis as they occupied Brussels—Otlet died with his grand bibliography being sent to storage. But his reputation has been on the rise in recent years, as the world has come to resemble the one that Otlet envisioned.
In 1998, his archives were reopened to the public in a museum in Belgium. A documentary about Otlet came out in 2002, and now Wright's book.
Wright does a good job of linking Otlet's work and line of thinking as persists through time, to speeches by H.G. Wells, who also envisioned a "world brain," and also Vannevar Bush, whose essay " As We May Think" is said to have inspired computer scientists who shaped the internet as we've come to know it.
The Otlet history of the internet is one told through "information sciences," but even from this vantage, Otlet can't really be linked to how the internet actually came to be, so fitting him into the internet's history is awkward.
"While there's no evidence that any of the Internet's Anglo-American inventors had any direct knowledge of Otlet's work, there is plenty of circumstantial evidence to suggest that his ideas were very much "in the air" by the 1930s and 1940s, when folks like Vannevar Bush and Doug Engelbart first started to contemplate the idea of automated information retrieval systems," Wright told me in an email.
The Internet is more than just a recent technological innovation; it is also the culmination of a complex chain of events.
It's a new way of seeing the internet, in one of its best lights—a standardized compendium of human knowledge that can be accessed from wherever you are. From this vantage the trolls, the frivolity of listicles fade away, and it seems like a triumph.
"For me, Otlet matters not because of his direct influence (or lack thereof) on the invention of the Internet, but because his work deepens our understanding of the historical forces at play," Wright said. "The Internet is more than just a recent technological innovation; it is also the culmination of a complex chain of events encompassing the history of libraries, the second industrial revolution of the late nineteenth century, and the progressive social idealism of Europe's Belle Epoque (among many other things, of course)."
In the light of Cataloging the World, the euphoric and grandiose-sounding potential of the internet seems more deserved than when an app developed claims he's "going to change the world" by letting us order pizza more efficiently.