Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘technology’

02 JULY, 2014

How to Get Rich: Paul Graham on Money vs. Wealth


Debunking the pie fallacy, or why there’s more to success than giving people what they want.

“The moral challenge and the grim problem we face,” Alan Watts argued in his superb 1970 essay on the difference between money and wealth, “is that the life of affluence and pleasure requires exact discipline and high imagination.” Hardly anywhere is this urgency manifested more vibrantly than in startup culture. So argues English programmer and writer Paul Graham — who went to art school studying painting after finishing grad school in computer science, and whose timelessly wonderful meditation on prestige vs. purpose remains a must-read — in an essay titled “How to Make Wealth,” found in the 2004 anthology Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age (public library). Echoing Watts, Graham defines a startup as “a way to compress your whole working life into a few years” and begins his exploration of “how to make money by creating wealth and getting paid for it” with an essential distinction between the two:

If you want to create wealth, it will help to understand what it is. Wealth is not the same thing as money. Wealth is as old as human history. Far older, in fact; ants have wealth. Money is a comparatively recent invention.

Wealth is the fundamental thing. Wealth is stuff we want: food, clothes, houses, cars, gadgets, travel to interesting places, and so on. You can have wealth without having money. If you had a magic machine that could on command make you a car or cook you dinner or do your laundry, or do anything else you wanted, you wouldn’t need money. Whereas if you were in the middle of Antarctica, where there is nothing to buy, it wouldn’t matter how much money you had.

Wealth is what you want, not money. But if wealth is the important thing, why does everyone talk about making money? It is a kind of shorthand: money is a way of moving wealth, and in practice they are usually interchangeable. But they are not the same thing, and unless you plan to get rich by counterfeiting, talking about making money can make it harder to understand how to make money.

Money is a side effect of specialization. In a specialized society, most of the things you need, you can’t make for yourself. If you want a potato or a pencil or a place to live, you have to get it from someone else.

Illustration from 'Henry Builds a Cabin,' a children's book about Thoreau's philosophy. Click image for more.

Unlike Buckminster Fuller, who saw specialization as a social evil, Graham considers it the natural progression of an exponentially advancing society. It first gave rise to trade between specialized forms of wealth (e.g., my homegrown tomatoes for your carpentry), then eventually sparked the creation of an intermediate stage — money (my tomatoes for a shilling, a shilling for your carpentry). Somewhere along the way, Graham argues, we lost sight of the fact that money is just an intermediary. He writes:

People think that what a business does is make money. But money is just the intermediate stage — just a shorthand — for whatever people want. What most businesses really do is make wealth. They do something people want.

From this, in turn, stems one of the most toxic fallacies we subscribe to — something legendary graphic designer Milton Glaser so eloquently debunked in considering the manifestable kindness of the universe. Graham writes of “the pie fallacy”:

A surprising number of people retain from childhood the idea that there is a fixed amount of wealth in the world. There is, in any normal family, a fixed amount of money at any moment. But that’s not the same thing. When wealth is talked about in this context, it is often described as a pie. “You can’t make the pie larger,” say politicians…

What leads people astray here is the abstraction of money. Money is not wealth. It’s just something we use to move wealth around. So although there may be, in certain specific moments (like your family, this month) a fixed amount of money available to trade with other people for things you want, there is not a fixed amount of wealth in the world. You can make more wealth. Wealth has been getting created and destroyed (but on balance, created) for all of human history.

Illustration from 'How People Earn and Use Money.' Click image for more.

What’s more, Graham points out, the relationship between wealth and money isn’t always a linearly transactional one:

Wealth can be created without being sold. Scientists, till recently at least, effectively donated the wealth they created. We are all richer for knowing about penicillin, because we’re less likely to die from infections. Wealth is whatever people want, and not dying is certainly something we want.

But this is where Graham loses me a bit: The way to make wealth, he argues, is “to start doing something people want.” And yet this falls closer to on-demand manufacturing than the kind of wealth-creation that happens when people are presented with something they didn’t yet know they wanted. Buzzfeed gives people what they want — most frequently, what their lowest selves want. Buzzfeed is making money. But is Buzzfeed creating cultural wealth? After seven years of Brain Pickings, I side even more wholeheartedly with E.B. White and believe what he once said of journalism — that the role of the writer is “to lift people up, not lower them down” — applies equally to every field of cultural endeavor. To create wealth is not to give people what they want, but to help them figure out what to want by making sense of what is worth having. There is a moral element to the marketable deliverable.

Graham takes this point in an even more worrisome direction in a footnote, where he writes:

There are many senses of the word “wealth,” not all of them material. I’m not trying to make a deep philosophical point here about which is the true kind. I’m writing about one specific, rather technical sense of the word “wealth.” What people will give you money for. This is an interesting sort of wealth to study, because it is the kind that prevents you from starving. And what people will give you money for depends on them, not you. When you’re starting a business, it’s easy to slide into thinking that customers want what you do. During the Internet Bubble I talked to a woman who, because she liked the outdoors, was starting an “outdoor portal.” You know what kind of business you should start if you like the outdoors? One to recover data from crashed hard disks. What’s the connection? None at all. Which is precisely my point. If you want to create wealth (in the narrow technical sense of not starving) then you should be especially skeptical about any plan that centers on things you like doing.

What a heartbreaking proposition. If we didn’t invest so much of ourselves in what we do — which includes what we ourselves believe, what we wish existed, and what direction we want to move the world in — then why bother doing it at all? As John Green put it, it’s about making gifts for people and putting them into the world, hoping those gifts might bring them joy and eventually bring us some form of “wealth,” but not putting them into the world because they will bring us wealth and with the primary aim that they do so.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss. Click image for more.

And yet, though Graham himself might confuse money with wealth at times, he does offer excellent insight into the advantages of startups — of being “part of a small group working on a hard problem” — over traditional companies. He writes:

A big company is like a giant galley driven by a thousand rowers. Two things keep the speed of the galley down. One is that individual rowers don’t see any result from working harder. The other is that, in a group of a thousand people, the average rower is likely to be pretty average.

If you took ten people at random out of the big galley and put them in a boat by themselves, they could probably go faster. They would have both carrot and stick to motivate them. An energetic rower would be encouraged by the thought that he could have a visible effect on the speed of the boat. And if someone was lazy, the others would be more likely to notice and complain.

But the real advantage of the ten-man boat shows when you take the ten best rowers out of the big galley and put them in a boat together. They will have all the extra motivation that comes from being in a small group. But more importantly, by selecting that small a group you can get the best rowers. Each one will be in the top 1%. It’s a much better deal for them to average their work together with a small group of their peers than to average it with everyone.

(It’s worth pausing here to note that the carrots-and-sticks method isn’t really what motivates us — a trifecta sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose is. Even in Graham’s boat analogy, this is likely the underlying force propelling the rowers.)

Graham continues:

That’s the real point of startups. Ideally, you are getting together with a group of other people who also want to work a lot harder, and get paid a lot more, than they would in a big company. And because startups tend to get founded by self-selecting groups of ambitious people who already know one another (at least by reputation), the level of measurement is more precise than you get from smallness alone. A startup is not merely ten people, but ten people like you.

He concludes with a piece of advice, both practical and philosophical, on how to choose the direction in which the energetic rowers steer the boat. In a sentiment that parallels Steven Pressfield’s assertion that “the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it,” Graham urges:

Use difficulty as a guide not just in selecting the overall aim of your company, but also at decision points along the way… Suppose you are a little, nimble guy being chased by a big, fat, bully. You open a door and find yourself in a staircase. Do you go up or down? I say up. The bully can probably run downstairs as fast as you can. Going upstairs his bulk will be more of a disadvantage. Running upstairs is hard for you but even harder for him.

All the essays in Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age make for a provocative read. Complement it with Anna Deavere Smith on discipline and how to stop letting others define us.

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24 JUNE, 2014

Susan Sontag on Being in the Middle versus Being at the Center


Why true neutrality is not an abstinence from taking sides of but an act of compassion.

“The incarnate mind, the tongue, and the tale are in our world coeval,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in reflecting on how language shapes our capacity for fantasy. And because language is intricately entwined with everything from our cognitive function to gender politics to the evolution of creativity, it also shapes our experience of reality — and of ourselves in reality — even more profoundly.

From Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview (public library) — her superb 1978 conversation with Jonathan Cott that was among the best books of 2013 and also gave us Sontag on the false divide between “high” and pop culture, how our cultural polarities imprison us, and love, sex, and the world between — comes Sontag’s characteristically insightful meditation on the inherent intelligence and ingenuity of language in helping us navigate the world and orient ourselves not only in relation to it but in relation to ourselves as well. She tells Cott:

What’s so wonderful about language is that we have these positive and negative words for the same thing. That’s why language is an infinite treasure. When we say in the middle, we think of someone who wants to remain equidistant from certain alternatives because he or she is afraid to take sides. But being in the center — isn’t that interesting? The whole thing changes.


One can think of it in the time sense. But “being in the center” is opposed to being marginal, and you don’t want to be in the margin of your own consciousness, or your own experience, or your own time. John Calvin, of all people, said, “The world is sloped on either side, therefore place yourself in the middle of it.” Meaning that you can fall off. We all know in our own lives that people are falling off the world all the time — they get onto that slope and then they start to slide. And that’s another sense of being in the middle. But to be on level ground is what you want to do because life is very complicated and you don’t want to just be hanging on by your bitten-down fingernails on one end of things, which is what happens to a lot of people because they can’t see anymore. And from where they’re hanging, it’s just a struggle not to fall off completely.

Susan Sontag on art, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton. Click image for details.

When Cott relays the famous anecdote that Johann Sebastian Bach preferred playing the alto or tenor parts in an orchestra because being in the middle allowed him to truly hear the music around him, Sontag responds with a remark doubly poignant in the context of today’s net neutrality debates and why they matter:

That’s so interesting about Bach. I think it’s wonderful. There’s an active notion of neutrality that people don’t understand. Transcendent neutrality isn’t an attitude of “I won’t take sides,” it’s compassion. Where you do see more than just what separates people or sides.

Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview is truly an exceptional and wonderfully wide-ranging treasure. Sample it further here, here, and here, then revisit Sontag on love, education, “aesthetic consumerism” and the violence of photography, and why lists appeal to us.

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You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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09 JUNE, 2014

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


“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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Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

You can also become a one-time patron with a single donation in any amount.

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29 MAY, 2014

A Brief History of the Toilet


How the most appropriately named inventor in history saved humanity from a centuries-long crisis.

“Civilized man has always been outraged by what he sees, or else there would be no civilization,” Norman Mailer once wrote. And, in fact, among the greatest feats of civilization is a technology that has enabled us to get one of humanity’s most primal yet most outrageous sights as far away from us, and as quickly, as possible: the modern toilet.

From Bill Bryson’s wonderfully edifying At Home: A Short History of Private Life (public library) comes the curious history of how this staple of civilization came to be — a story not for the faint of heart or gut, but one brilliantly emblematic of how scientific innovation unfolds, with all its desperation-driven revolutions, cumulative advances, and dormant breakthroughs.

Bryson begins by tracing the colorful etymological history of the word itself:

Perhaps no word in English has undergone more transformations in its lifetime than toilet. Originally, in about 1540, it was a kind of cloth, a diminutive form of ‘toile’, a word still used to describe a type of linen. Then it became a cloth for use on dressing tables. Then it became the items on the dressing table (whence toiletries). Then it became the dressing table itself, then the act of dressing, then the act of receiving visitors while dressing, then the dressing room itself, then any kind of private room near a bedroom, then a room used lavatorially, and finally the lavatory itself. Which explains why toilet water in English can describe something you would gladly daub on your face or, simultaneously and more basically, water in a toilet.

Meanwhile, the fate of the actual toilet water — at what is referred to by that term today — was far less polished. As recently as the beginning of the 18th century, most sewage still went into cesspools, which were frequently neglected to a point of spilling into adjoining water supplies or overflowing into the streets. Bryson cites one man’s diary record of such an incident spurred by his neighbor’s neglected cesspit:

Going down into my cellar… I put my foot into a great heap of turds … by which I found that Mr. Turner’s house of office is full and comes into my cellar, which doth trouble me.

And just when one feels things couldn’t get any more nauseating, Bryson introduces the people who cleaned the cesspits, semi-euphemistically known as “nightsoil men.” Their duties put in perspective any present-day complaints about the struggle to find fulfilling work:

They worked in teams of three or four. One man — the most junior, we may assume — was lowered into the pit itself to scoop waste into buckets. A second stood by the pit to raise and lower the buckets, and the third and fourth carried the buckets to a waiting cart. Nightsoil work was dangerous as well as disagreeable. Workers ran the risk of asphyxiation and even of explosions, since they worked by the light of a lantern in powerfully gaseous environments.

Given this was unfolding during the heyday of Adam Smith, it is perhaps unsurprising that nightsoil workers made up for the extreme disagreeableness of the job and the skewed supply-demand ratio by charging formidable fees. This presented another problem: Poorer districts, often in the overcrowded inner city, couldn’t afford their services, which caused their cesspits to overflow regularly. Given the extreme population density — in London’s most compressed districts, 54,000 people were packed into a few blocks and one one report claimed that 11,000 lived in 27 houses on a single alley — this was a problem.

A new word crept into the vernacular to describe such neighborhoods: slums. Though its exact origin remains unknown, Charles Dickens was among the first to use it, in a letter penned in 1851.

A solution to the cesspit crisis was desperately needed. But when a successful one finally arrived, it wasn’t the result of a eureka! moment for groundbreaking technology — it was a concept that had been around since the end of the 16th century but, as is the case with many scientific and technological breakthroughs ahead of their time, had stopped short of perfecting the prototype enough to gain commercial traction.

That solution was the flush toilet, which John Harington, the godson of Queen Elizabeth I, had built for the Queen in 1597. Delight by his invention, she promptly installed it in Richmond Palace, but it never expanded beyond the royal dwellings. Bryson writes:

Almost 200 years passed before Joseph Bramah, a cabinet maker and locksmith, patented the first modern flush toilet in 1778. It caught on in a modest way. Many others followed… But early toilets often didn’t work well. Sometimes they backfired, filling the room with even more of what the horrified owner had very much hoped to be rid of. Until the development of the U-bend and water trap — which create that little reservoir of water that returns to the bottom of the bowl after each flush — every toilet bowl acted as a conduit to the smells of cesspit and sewer. The backwaft of odors, particularly in hot weather, could be unbearable.

The final link in this chain of problem-solving came from an inventor with perhaps the most brilliantly appropriate name in history: Thomas Crapper. Bryson ties the loose ends of the story:

[Crapper] was born into a poor family in Yorkshire and reputedly walked to London at the age of 11. There he became an apprentice plumber in Chelsea. Crapper invented the classic and still familiar toilet with an elevated cistern activated by the pull of a chain. Called the Marlboro Silent Water Waste Preventer, it was clean, leak-proof, odor-free and wonderfully reliable, and their manufacture made Crapper very rich and so famous that it is often assumed that he gave his name to the slang term crap and its many derivatives. In fact, crap in the lavatorial sense is very ancient, and crapper for a toilet is an Americanism not recorded by the Oxford English Dictionary before 1922. Crapper’s name, it seems, was just a happy accident.

In the rest of At Home: A Short History of Private Life, Bryson goes on to explore with equal parts wit and scientific rigor the everyday miracles in each room of the house and the colorful backstories behind those modern comforts we’ve come to take for granted, from pipes to pillows.

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