Brain Pickings

The Birth of the Information Age: How Paul Otlet’s Vision for Cataloging and Connecting Humanity Shaped Our World

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“Everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts.”

Decades before Alan Turing pioneered computer science and Vannevar Bush imagined the web, a visionary Belgian idealist named Paul Otlet (August 23, 1868–December 10, 1944) set out to organize the world’s information. For nearly half a century, he worked unrelentingly to index and catalog every significant piece of human thought ever published or recorded, building a massive Universal Bibliography of 15 million books, magazines, newspapers, photographs, posters, museum pieces, and other assorted media. His monumental collection was predicated not on ownership but on access and sharing — while amassing it, he kept devising increasingly ambitious schemes for enabling universal access, fostering peaceful relations between nations, and democratizing human knowledge through a global information network he called the “Mundaneum” — a concept partway between Voltaire’s Republic of Letters, Marshall McLuhan’s “global village,” and the übermind of the future. Otlet’s work would go on to inspire generations of information science pioneers, including the founding fathers of the modern internet and the world wide web. (Even the visual bookshelf I use to manage the Brain Pickings book archive is named after him.)

In Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (public library | IndieBound), writer, educator, and design historian Alex Wright traces Otlet’s legacy not only in technology and information science, but also in politics, social reform, and peace activism, illustrating why not only Otlet’s ideas, but also his idealism matter as we contemplate the future of humanity.

The Mundaneum, with its enormous filing system designed by Otlet himself, allowed people to request information by mail-order. By 1912, Otlet and his team were fielding 1,500 such requests per year.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Wright writes:

Paul Otlet … seems to connect a series of major turning points in the history of the early twentieth-century information age, synthesizing and incorporating their ideas along with his own, and ultimately coming tantalizingly close to building a fully integrated global information network.

[…]

Otlet embraced the new internationalism and emerged as one of its most prominent apostles in Europe in the early twentieth century. In his work we can see many of these trends intersecting — the rise of industrial technologies, the problem of managing humanity’s growing intellectual output, and the birth of a new internationalism. To sustain it Otlet tried to assemble a great catalog of the world’s published information, create an encyclopedic atlas of human knowledge, build a network of federated museums and other cultural institutions, and establish a World City that would serve as the headquarters for a new world government. For Otlet these were not disconnected activities but part of a larger vision of worldwide harmony. In his later years he started to describe the Mundaneum in transcendental terms, envisioning his global knowledge network as something akin to a universal consciousness and as a gateway to collective enlightenment.

In 1903, Otlet developed a revolutionary index card system for organizing information.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

Otlet's primarily female staff answered information requests by hand. Without the digital luxury of keyword searches, a single query could take painstaking hours, even days, of sifting through the elaborate index card catalog.

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

The Mundaneum, which officially opened its doors in 1920, a decade after Otlet first dreamt it up, wasn’t merely a prescient vision for the utilitarian information-retrieval function of the modern internet, but the ideological framework for a far nobler and more ambitious goal to unite the world around a new culture of networked peace and understanding, which would shepherd humanity toward reaching its spiritual potential — an idea that makes the Mundaneum’s fate in actuality all the more bitterly ironic.

At the peak of Otlet’s efforts to organize the world’s knowledge around a generosity of spirit, humanity’s greatest tragedy of ignorance and cruelty descended upon Europe. As the Nazis seized power, they launched a calculated campaign to thwart critical thought by banning and burning all books that didn’t agree with their ideology — the very atrocity that prompted Helen Keller’s scorching letter on book-burning — and even paved the muddy streets of Eastern Europe with such books so the tanks would pass more efficiently. When the Nazi inspectors responsible for the censorship effort eventually got to Otlet’s collection, they weren’t quite sure what to make of it. One report summed up their contemptuous bafflement:

The institute and its goals cannot be clearly defined. It is some sort of … ‘museum for the whole world,’ displayed through the most embarrassing and cheap and primitive methods… The library is cobbled together and contains, besides a lot of waste, some things we can use. The card catalog might prove rather useful.

But behind the “waste” and the “embarrassing” methods of organizing it lay far greater ideas that evaded, as is reliably the case, small minds. Wright outlines the remarkable prescience of Otlet’s vision:

What the Nazis saw as a “pile of rubbish,” Otlet saw as the foundation for a global network that, one day, would make knowledge freely available to people all over the world. In 1934, he described his vision for a system of networked computers — “electric telescopes,” he called them — that would allow people to search through millions of interlinked documents, images, and audio and video files. He imagined that individuals would have desktop workstations—each equipped with a viewing screen and multiple movable surfaces — connected to a central repository that would provide access to a wide range of resources on whatever topics might interest them. As the network spread, it would unite individuals and institutions of all stripes — from local bookstores and classrooms to universities and governments. The system would also feature so-called selection machines capable of pinpointing a particular passage or individual fact in a document stored on microfilm, retrieved via a mechanical indexing and retrieval tool. He dubbed the whole thing a réseau mondial: a “worldwide network” or, as the scholar Charles van den Heuvel puts it, an “analog World Wide Web.”

Twenty-five years before the first microchip, forty years before the first personal computer, and fifty years before the first Web browser, Paul Otlet had envisioned something very much like today’s Internet.

Otlet articulated this vision in his own writing, describing an infrastructure remarkably similar to the underlying paradigm of the modern web:

Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of [its] 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.

Otlet’s prescience, Wright notes, didn’t end there — he also envisioned speech recognition tools, wireless networks that would enable people to upload files to remote servers, social networks and virtual communities around individual pieces of media that would allow people to “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus,” and even concepts we are yet to crack with our present technology, such as transmitting sensory experiences like smell and taste.

Otlet's sketch for the 'worldwide network' he envisioned

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

But Otlet’s most significant vision wasn’t about the technology of it — it was about politics and peace, the very things that most bedevil the modern web, from cyber terrorism to the ongoing struggle for net neutrality. Wright writes:

An ardent “internationalist,” Otlet believed in the inevitable progress of humanity toward a peaceful new future, in which the free flow of information over a distributed network would render traditional institutions — like state governments — anachronistic. Instead, he envisioned a dawning age of social progress, scientific achievement, and collective spiritual enlightenment. At the center of it all would stand the Mundaneum, a bulwark and beacon of truth for the whole world.

But when the Nazis swept Europe and crept closer to Belgium, it became clear to Otlet that not only the physical presence of the Mundaneum but also its political ideals stood at grave risk. He grew increasingly concerned. In swelling desperation to save his life’s work, he sent President Roosevelt a telegram offering the entire collection to the United States “as nucleus of a great World Institution for World Peace and Progress with a seat in America.” Otlet’s urgent plea made it all the way to the Belgian press, who printed the telegram, but he never heard back from Roosevelt. He send a second telegram, even more urgent, once Belgium was invaded, but again received no response. Finally, in a final act of despair, he decided to make “an appeal on behalf of humanity” and try persuading the Nazi inspectors that the Mundaneum was worth saving. Predictably, they were unmoved. A few days later, Nazi soldiers destroyed 63 tons’ worth of books Otlet’s meticulously preserved and indexed materials that constituted the heart of his collection.

Otlet was devastated, but continued to labor quietly over his dream of a global information network throughout the occupation. Four months after the liberation of Paris, he died. And yet the ghost of his work went on to greatly influence the modern information world. Wright contextualizes Otlet’s legacy:

While Otlet did not by any stretch of the imagination “invent” the Internet — working as he did in an age before digital computers, magnetic storage, or packet-switching networks — nonetheless his vision looks nothing short of prophetic. In Otlet’s day, microfilm may have qualified as the most advanced information storage technology, and the closest thing anyone had ever seen to a database was a drawer full of index cards. Yet despite these analog limitations, he envisioned a global network of interconnected institutions that would alter the flow of information around the world, and in the process lead to profound social, cultural, and political transformations.

By today’s standards, Otlet’s proto-Web was a clumsy affair, relying on a patchwork system of index cards, file cabinets, telegraph machines, and a small army of clerical workers. But in his writing he looked far ahead to a future in which networks circled the globe and data could travel freely. Moreover, he imagined a wide range of expression taking shape across the network: distributed encyclopedias, virtual classrooms, three-dimensional information spaces, social networks, and other forms of knowledge that anticipated the hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. He saw these developments as fundamentally connected to a larger utopian project that would bring the world closer to a state of permanent and lasting peace and toward a state of collective spiritual enlightenment.

And yet there’s a poignant duality in how the modern web came to both embody and defy Otlet’s ideals:

During its brief heyday, Otlet’s Mundaneum was also a window onto the world ahead: a vision of a networked information system spanning the globe. Today’s Internet represents both a manifestation of Otlet’s dream and also, arguably, the realization of his worst fears. For the system he imagined differed in crucial ways from the global computer network that would ultimately take shape during the Cold War. He must have sensed that his dream was over when he confronted Krüss and the Nazi delegation on that day in 1940. But before we can fully grasp the importance of Otlet’s vision, we need to look further back, to where it all began.

Comparing the Mundaneum with Sir Tim Berners Lee’s original 1989 proposal for the world wide web, both premised on an essential property of universality, Wright notes both the parallels between the two and the superiority, in certain key aspects, of Otlet’s ideals compared to how the modern web turned out:

[Otlet] never framed his thinking in purely technological terms; he saw the need for a whole-system approach that encompassed not just a technical solution for sharing documents and a classification system to bind them together, but also the attendant political, organizational, and financial structures that would make such an effort sustainable in the long term. And while his highly centralized, controlled approach may have smacked of nineteenth-century cultural imperialism (or, to put it more generously, at least the trappings of positivism), it had the considerable advantages of any controlled system, or what today we might call a “walled garden”: namely, the ability to control what goes in and out, to curate the experience, and to exert a level of quality control on the contents that are exchanged within the system.

Paul Otlet in 1932, months before the Nazis destroyed his Mundaneum

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

But Otlet’s greatest ambition, as well as the one most enduring due to its as-yet unfulfilled fruition, was that of the Mundaneum’s humanistic effect in strengthening the invisible bonds that link us together — an ethos rather antithetical to the individualistic, almost narcissistic paradigm of today’s social web. Wright explains:

The contemporary construct of “the user” that underlies so much software design figures nowhere in Otlet’s work. He saw the mission of the Mundaneum as benefiting humanity as a whole, rather than serving the whims of individuals. While he imagined personalized workstations (those Mondotheques), he never envisioned the network along the lines of a client-server “architecture” (a term that would not come into being for another two decades). Instead, each machine would act as a kind of “dumb” terminal, fetching and displaying material stored in a central location.

The counterculture programmers who paved the way for the Web believed they were participating in a process of personal liberation. Otlet saw it as a collective undertaking, one dedicated to a higher purpose than mere personal gratification. And while he might well have been flummoxed by the anything-goes ethos of present-day social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter, he also imagined a system that allowed groups of individuals to take part in collaborative experiences like lectures, opera performances, or scholarly meetings, where they might “applaud” or “give ovations.” It seems a short conceptual hop from here to Facebook’s ubiquitous “Like” button.

A reproduction of Otlet's original Mondotheque desk

(Image: Mundaneum Archive, Belgium)

In this regard, Otlet’s idea of collective intelligence working toward a common good presaged modern concepts like crowdsourcing and “cognitive surplus” as well as initiatives like Singularity University. Wright considers the essence of his legacy:

Otlet’s work invites us to consider a simple question: whether the path to liberation requires maximum personal freedom of the kind that characterizes today’s anything-goes Internet, or whether humanity would find itself better served by pursuing liberation through the exertion of discipline.

Considering the darker side of the modern internet in information monopolies like Google and Facebook, Wright reflects on how antithetical this dominance of private enterprise is to Otlet’s vision of a democratic, publicly funded international network. “He likely would have seen the pandemonium of today’s Web as an enormous waste of humanity’s intellectual and spiritual potential,” Wright writes and as he contemplates the messy machinery of money and motives propelling the modern web:

Would the Internet have turned out any differently had Paul Otlet’s vision come to fruition? Counterfactual history is a fool’s game, but it is perhaps worth considering a few possible lessons from the Mundaneum. First and foremost, Otlet acted not out of a desire to make money — something he never succeeded at doing — but out of sheer idealism. His was a quest for universal knowledge, world peace, and progress for humanity as a whole. The Mundaneum was to remain, as he said, “pure.” While many entrepreneurs vow to “change the world” in one way or another, the high-tech industry’s particular brand of utopianism almost always carries with it an underlying strain of free-market ideology: a preference for private enterprise over central planning and a distrust of large organizational structures. This faith in the power of “bottom-up” initiatives has long been a hallmark of Silicon Valley culture, and one that all but precludes the possibility of a large-scale knowledge network emanating from anywhere but the private sector.

But rather than a hapless historical lament, Wright argues, Otlet’s work can serve as an ideal — moral, social, political — to aspire to as we continue to shape this fairly young medium. It could lead us to devise more intelligent intellectual property regulations, build more sophisticated hyperlinks, and hone our ability to curate and contextualize information in more meaningful ways. He writes:

That is why Paul Otlet still matters. His vision was not just cloud castles and Utopian scheming and positivist cant but in some ways more relevant and realizable now than at any point in history. To be sure, some of his most cherished ideas seem anachronistic by today’s standards: his quest for “universal” truth, his faith in international organizations, and his conviction in the inexorable progress of humanity. But as more and more of us rely on the Internet to conduct our everyday lives, we are also beginning to discover the dark side of such extreme decentralization. The hopeful rhetoric of the early years of the Internet revolution has given way to the realization that we may be entering a state of permanent cultural amnesia, in which the sheer fluidity of the Web makes it difficult to keep our bearings. Along the way, many of us have also entrusted our most valued personal data — letters, photographs, films, and all kinds of other intellectual artifacts — to a handful of corporations who are ultimately beholden not to serving humanity but to meeting Wall Street quarterly earnings estimates. For all the utopian Silicon Valley rhetoric about changing the world, the technology industry seems to have little appetite for long-term thinking beyond its immediate parochial interests.

[…]

Otlet’s Mundaneum will never be. But it nonetheless offers us a kind of Platonic object, evoking the possibility of a technological future driven not by greed and vanity, but by a yearning for truth, a commitment to social change, and a belief in the possibility of spiritual liberation. Otlet’s vision for an international knowledge network—always far more expansive than a mere information retrieval tool—points toward a more purposeful vision of what the global network could yet become. And while history may judge Otlet a relic from another time, he also offers us an example of a man driven by a sense of noble purpose, who remained sure in his convictions and unbowed by failure, and whose deep insights about the structure of human knowledge allowed him to peer far into the future…

His work points to a deeply optimistic vision of the future: one in which the world’s knowledge coalesces into a unified whole, narrow national interests give way to the pursuit of humanity’s greater good, and we all work together toward building an enlightened society.

Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age is a remarkable read in its entirety, not only in illuminating history but in extracting from it a beacon for the future. Complement it with Vannevar Bush’s 1945 “memex” concept and George Dyson’s history of bits. And lest we forget, it all started with a woman — Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter and the world’s first computer programmer.

Thanks, Liz

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