The Outline of the Future
These ideas are taken up in Wells's The Shape of Things to Come
(Wells,1933). Though cast as a fiction, "the Dream book of Dr Philip Raven," this work may well be a version of that "Outline of the Future" about which Wells wrote enthusiastically to Doubleday. Announcing his idea for the new book, Wells said, "It won't be a 'fantastic' story; it will, if I don't fall down, be solidly real as well as wonderful"
(Wells-Doubleday, 1932). In effect The Outline of the Future would complement the great trilogy, the "three correlated compilations," that Wells believed represented "together a complete system of ideas." First had come The Outline of History
(1919, but with many editions subsequently). Then, first in parts and then as a four volume consolidation, came The Science of Life,
1929-31. Finally, in 1931 came what he described as "the most difficult and original of all of these encyclopaedic essays" (Wells 1942a, p.56), The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind
. In order to make explicit the relationship between the three works, Wells proposed that subsequent editions of the last two should be subtitled respectively "Outline of Biological Science" and "Outline of Economic and Social Science (Johnson-Wells, 1933, Wells, 1934, p. 616) (10).
The importance of these works in Wells's thinking cannot be over estimated. The Open Conspiracy, he tells us "rests upon and arises out of a synthesis of historical, biological, and sociological realizations" (Wells, 1931c, p.101), precisely what Wells had provided in the three synthetic treatises. In effect these works present what Wells described as "the threefold basis for a modern ideology, historical, biological and economic" (Wells, 1928, p.104). Such an 'ideology' provided a foundation on which the "Open Conspiracy" could proceed in its task of slowly, in a piecemeal way, bringing into being the World State on which, in Wells's view, mankind's future survival depended (Wells 1931c, p.18).
An Outline of the Future, such as is given in The Shape of Things to Come
, extrapolates the trends of development in the earlier "scientific" syntheses. It gives Wells the opportunity to present both what he calls a "theory of world revolution" (Wells, 1933, p.430) and his picture of the ideal World State that will emerge from this revolution. This in its turn is a reworking of his ideas about the New Republic first presented more than a generation before first in Anticipations
(Wells, 1902) and in extenso
in A Modern Utopia
Wells observed that the Shape of Things to Come
"is as deliberate and laborious a piece of work as anything I have ever done'.I think I have contrived to set out in it my matured theory of revolution and world government very plainly" (Wells 1934, p.640). As an "Outline of the Future" it is a story of evolutionary adaptation. The evolutionary developments discussed in the Science of Life
are, Wells tells us, "only the opening sentences of the next chapter of human biology" (Wells 1931, p.1476). In The Shape of Things
to come he described how, as one dips further into that chapter of human development, mankind is shown as progressively emerging from the "decadence," "the twilight of social order" of the mid-twentieth century into a far more exalted state in the years of the 21 first century.
This culmination is a technocratic achievement. The adaptive steps conform to Wells's notions of an "Open Conspiracy," though they are not labelled as such in the work itself. They are initiated by groups of scientists and engineers who "invade" politics in a "movement that spreads from workshop to workshop and from laboratory to laboratory" (Wells, 1933, pp.262-266)." These groups of people are guided by theories of group psychology, especially the theories of "social nucleation" of a Wellsian avatar Gustave de Windt (Wells, 1933, p.250). De Windt, we are told, is "not so much a creator as a summariser, a concentrator, a lens that gathers to a burning focus the accumulating mental illumination of his day" (Wells, 1933, p.260) ' like Wells himself. The successful application of de Windt's theories brings about "an epoch in biological history" (p.425). This is a world renaissance and the emergence of the World State that Wells believed had become necessary if "the species was not to collapse, degenerate and perish by the wayside" (p.254).
History is presented as a "readjustment of the individual to the racial life" (Wells, 1933, p. 427.) This readjustment involves a commitment to eugenics, very much in the air at this time. While Wells does not adopt Nazi-like ideas of racial purity, he clearly supports the notion that the application of eugenic principles can help achieve racial strength and adaptability. He recommends, for example, "the painless destruction of monsters and the more dreadful and pitiful sorts of defective 'and also the sterilisation of various types that would otherwise have transmitted tendencies that were plainly undesirable" (p. 394).
This is a recurrent and important issue for Wells. Almost thirty years before The Shape of Things To Come
appeared, he stated the problem and the resolution he proposes for it even more graphically in A Modern Utopia
(Wells 1905). The problem is how society is to deal with the evolutionary implications of its "invalids, its idiots and madmen, its drunkards and men of vicious mind, its cruel and furtive souls, its stupid people, too stupid to be of use to the community, its lumpish, unteachable, and unimaginative people"? The answer comes without hesitation: "these people will have to be in the descendant phase, the species must be engage in eliminating them; there is no escape from that, and conversely, the people of exceptional quality must be ascendant. The better sort of people, so far as they can be distinguished, must have the fullest freedom of public service, the fullest opportunity of parentage" (Wells, 1905, p. 36). The State would provide support for "the mildly incompetent, the spiritless and dull, the poorer sort who are ill'," though in return for support they must undertake to remain childless (p. 141)
Of course, in a society that he claims would have a "government as merciful and deliberate as it is powerful and decisive", there will be no need to execute criminals. There may even be no gaols. Quietly, with "the strength that begets mercy," the state will remove those who are not acceptable to it to remote islands - a special island for the drunkards, for example, another for "cheats." In an extraordinarily anachronistic proposal, Wells harked back to the model of the British system of convict transportation of the late eighteenth century. This system is to be used not only to deal with the criminal strictly defined but those who have socially undesirable characteristics that might affect the genetic stock and the evolutionary process. That he should single out apparently so casually the dull, the unimaginative, the stupid, the furtive and so on for extermination or isolation is simply staggering to a late twentieth century sensibility. Who is to make these determinations and against what criteria ? How is one to define precisely the "poorer sort" and the "better sort"? Might there not be among the "unteachable" those who resolutely refuse to accept Wells's (the orthodox, the State's) view of things? In order to avoid the possibility of children being produced by these literal outcasts, Wells suggested that "it may even be necessary to make these island prisons a system of monasteries and nunneries" (p.144).
In The Shape of Things to Come
he portrayed the adaptive processes at work in human society as overcoming "the inherent distaste in the individual for subordination and self-sacrifice." By means of a "steady obliteration of primary motives" ( Wells, 1933, p. 422) the necessary "sublimation of individuality "(p. 427) may be achieved. To ensure the success of the new social order that is beginning to appear in the twenty-first century "man's life and interests have been socialised against his natural disposition." This is described as a subversive individualism. In the future Wells's believed that "the obscurer processes of selection" will be "accelerated and directed by eugenic effort" and man will eventually become a new species (p. 426).
Taking up the ideas of language set out in The Science of Life
, Wells suggests in The Shape of Things to Come
that the developmental processes which he sees beginning to transform mankind will have an important linguistic dimension. English will first be reduced and purified to a form of C.K. Ogden's Basic English which was enjoying enormous popularity at the time Wells was writing. This linguistic activity would be monitored and developed by a Language Bureau. The Language Bureau in its turn would draw on the "science of significs" proposed by Ogden and I.A. Richards in their Meaning of Meaning
of 1923. As a result of these attentions, Wells suggests, English will gradually become more lucid, more comprehensive and more able to function effectively as a "truly universal language." Improvements in language will contribute to the evolutionary process by allowing man's brain to become " far more neatly packed and better arranged, cleaner and better lubricated" than in the past (p.418). This will involve a kind of physical rewiring of the brain. "The rearrangement of the association systems of the human brain which is now in progress brings with it ' long before we begin to dream of eugenic developments ' the prospect of at present inconceivable extensions of human capacity" (p.419).
The ideal society into which we are being propelled by the forces of evolution, given a helping hand by modern Science and Technology, will culminate in a central intellectual organism, a World Brain. At the same time, these developments will be paralleled by "an immense increase in the amount, the quality, and the accessibility of knowledge." He suggests that "the continual advance in productive efficiency [will liberate] fresh multitudes of workers for its services" and will encourage the rapid growth of the World Brain. Wells sets up the head quarters of the Fundamental Knowledge System that he sees his new society requiring in Barcelona, but notes that it will have special stations everywhere as well as regional bureaux (Wells, 1933, p.130).
"As the individual brain quickens and becomes more skilful, there also appears a collective Brain, the Encyclopaedia, the Fundamental Knowledge System which accumulates, sorts, keeps in order and renders available everything that is known. The Encyclopaedia Organisation, which centres on Barcelona, with its seventeen million active workers, is the Memory of Mankind. Its tentacles spread out in one direction to millions of investigators, checkers and correspondents, and in the other to keep the education a process in living touch with mental advance" " (Wells, 1933, pp.419-20)
Ideology, Politics, and the World Encyclopedia
For Wells the World Brain had an essential ideological and political function. It would "bring all of the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like common understanding, and into effective reaction upon our vulgar everyday political, social and economic life" (Wells, 1938, p 17). Wells speaks of the World Encyclopedia as providing a "directive synthesis" (Wells, 1934, p.794). It will "reach down to direct the ideological side of human education'" (p.795). He sees the new organisation spreading "like a nervous network, a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all of the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and common medium of expression into a more and more conscious co-operating unity and a growing sense of their own dignity, informing without pressure or propaganda, directing without tyranny"(Wells, 1938, p. 33). It is, he said, the only "possible method I can imagine of bringing the universities and research institutions of the world into effective co-operation and creating an intellectual authority sufficient to control and direct our collective life" (p.68).
He sees the new central encyclopedic organisation "informing, suggesting, directing unifying" reaching into "every corner of the world" (p.71). It would "hold men's minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality" (p. 35). It foreshadowed "a real intellectual unification of our race" (p. 86-7). It would be a world organ whose function would be to "'pull the mind of the world together.'" (p.85). Wells observed that "a common ideology based on this Permanent World encyclopaedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity" (p.62). He suggested with apparent approval that it would "compel
men to come to terms with one another" (Wells's emphasis, pp.23).
It is clear that for Wells one of the attractions of the new World Encyclopedia organisation, the World Brain, is that it will allow us to wind up and replace outmoded institutions as the new World State is established. A new form of direction and control of human affairs will emerge that will rescue us from the dangers into which we are drifting. Wells foresees no real obstacles developing to what he calls "the production of such a ruling World Brain."
"In a universal organisation and clarification of knowledge and ideas, in a closer synthesis of university and educational activities, in the evocation, that is, of what I have here called a World Brain, operating by an enhanced educational system through the whole body of mankind, a World Brain which will replace our multitude of uncoordinated ganglia, our powerless miscellany of universities, research institutions, literatures with a purpose, national education systems and the like; in that and in that alone, it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for world affairs, any hope of an adequate directive control of the present destructive drift of world affairs (Wells 1938, p. xvi).
The most common meaning of Receiver, apart from that related to stolen goods, is an official appointed to help wind up the affairs of a company going into liquidation. The Competent Receiver is an important aspect for Wells of the Open Conspiracy ' a sort of Oliver Cromwell on a white charger purging the state of reactionary elements inimical to the emerging world polity. Beatrice Webb sums up something of the effect these ideas were having at about this time on one thoughtful observer and long-time acquaintance. In her diary for 31st March, 1939, she records that she had lunched with Wells. "He was obsessed with his own vague vision of a world order, with his search for a 'competent receiver' of the power to organise mankind. The mass electorate and its representatives were totally unfit for the job. But he utterly failed to make me understand what kind of social institution he had in mind" (Webb, 1985, IV, pp.431).
A source for understanding what Wells may have had in mind is his early book, A Modern Utopia
(Wells, 1905). In this work he presents a first and, from a modern point of view, frequently horrifying vision of what for him is the great new World State in the making. The new World State, he suggests, will take its origin in a society in which, because of the development of science and technology, man is finally "emancipated" from physical labour" (Wells 1905, p. 98). "The whole trend of a scientific mechanical civilisation is continually to replace labour by machinery and to increase it in its effectiveness by organisation'" (p.152). The result is to change the nature of life's "incentives" and to make it "less panic-stricken and violent and base" (p.155). But this kind of emancipation from "toil" raises the problem of finding an appropriate disposition of the working class now dispossessed of its traditional employments. This is one of Wells's persistent themes (see Wells 1902).
In this work Wells suggests for the government of the new utopia that there must emerge a new kind of governing class, to whom he gave the name, "the Samurai." Wells acknowledged his debt to Plato's Republic and to the Japanese tradition of "bushido" in formulating his ideas about the Samurai. The responsibility for ruling the world lies in their hands. They are the administrators and politicians and only they are allowed to vote (Wells, 1905, p.310). Wells describes in considerable detail their roles and responsibilities.
In The Shape of Things to Come
some thirty years later Wells portrays the government of his new and ideal state as unashamedly absolutist and totalitarian. It would be "the landowner of the earth'it will maintain order, maintain roads, maintain a cheap efficient administration of justice, maintain cheap and rapid locomotion and be the common carrier of the planet, convey and distribute labour, control, let or administer all natural productions, pay for and secure healthy births and vigorous new generation, maintain the public health, coin money and sustain standards of measurement, subsidies research, and reward such commercially unprofitable undertakings as benefit the community as a whole, subsidise, when needful chairs of criticism ad publication, and collect and distribute information" (Wells, 1933, p 89-90).
For purposes of government and, if necessary, preventative disposition, the populace in Well's extraordinary Utopia, is to be divided into four categories: the poietic, the kinetic, the dull and the base. This division allows Wells to "vest all of the executive and administrative work in the kinetic class. While the poietic class may have role in suggestion, criticism and legislation, the kinetic class are responsible for controlling the base and giving the dull "an incentive to kinetic effort" (Wells, 1933, p.562). Presumably, the kinetic class is a later version of Wells's new order of Samurai first described in A Modern Utopia.
Although he does not use this name in The Shape of Things to Come
, it is
clear that, almost thirty years after first describing how the order of Samurai would be constituted, the qualifications needed for admission to its non-hereditary ranks, the work it would perform, the strict and ascetic mental and social disciplines which would sustain it, for Wells it a central importance in his system of thought. In his Experiment in Autobiography
he observes, "A Samurai order educated in such an ideology as I have since tried to shape out, is inevitable if the modern world-state is to be fully realized," he declared (Wells, 1934, p.563).
Beatrice Webb has a rather dismissive comment on the Samurai, too. She met Wells and his son at tea with the George Bernard Shaws in 1932 at the height of the Great Depression. An ardent admirer of the communist system of the Soviet Union, she reported disapprovingly that Wells had denigrated Russian communism. "He is still infatuated," she observed, "with the conception of a conspiracy of international Samurai capitalists to rule the world of the common men and he is prepared to sit down straightaway and draft the requisite decrees which will bring back prosperity" (Webb, 1985, p.285).
What of the machinery of government? In A Modern Utopia
, written long before Wells began to think in terms of a World Brain, he suggested that the administration of the World State would require a kind of Registrar General's Department in which would be maintained a giant world index, what today would be called a database. The major function of this index would be to ensure that every person in the world can be "promptly and certainly recognised." It would provide a record of all of the movements of the populace. In it would be entered "various material facts, such as marriage, parentage, criminal convictions and the like." The new born would be recorded and the dead removed. "Each human being would be given a distinct formula, a number or a 'scientific name,' under which he or she could be docketed." The main index would be supplemented by "a system of other indices with cross references to the main one, arranged under names, under professional qualification, under diseases, crime and the like." (Wells, 1905, pp. 162-3, 164).
This is Wells's vision of the collection and centralisation of information for control of the world state, a Big Brother organisation imagined fifty years before Orwell's chilling vision captured the popular imagination:
"These index cards might conceivable be transparent and so contrived to give a photographic copy promptly whenever it was needed, and they could have an attachment into which would slip a ticket bearing the name of the locality in which the individual was last reported. A little army of attendants would be at work on this index day and night. From the sub-station constantly engaged in checking back thumb-marks and numbers, an incessant stream of information would come, of births, of deaths, of arrival at inns, of applications to post offices for letters, of tickets taken for long journeys, of criminal convictions, marriages, applications of public doles and the like. A filter of offices would sort the stream, and all day and all night for ever a swarm of clerks would go to and for correcting the central register, and photographing copies of its entries for transmission to the subordinate local stations, in response to their enquiries. So the inventory of the State would watch every man and the wide world would write its history as the fabric of destiny flowed on. (Wells, 1905, pp.164-5)
Clearly the Index Organisation of A Modern Utopia
must underpin the administrative and political decisions of the Samurai. It would provide them not only with the means to exercise control over the movement and behaviour of the population of the new world state but also with the information needed to govern this new state wisely and well. In 1905, Wells suggested that "Bacon's visionary House of Solomon" would at last be realised in the new utopia with "reports of scientific experiments, as full, as prompt as telegraphic reports of cricket" flashing from it about the world. (Wells, 1905, p. 60). But when he hints at the need for a World Brain it is entirely in the potentially repressive context of total social surveillance.
"I have compared the indexing of humanity we have come upon to an eye, an eye so sensitive and alert that two strangers cannot appear anywhere upon the planet without discovery. Now an eye does not see without a brain, an eye does not turn round and look without a will or purpose". (p.172)
The World Brain organisation described in The Shape of Things to Come
of 1933, the headquarters for which is located in Barcelona, contains echoes of the index organisation described in A Modern Utopia
of 1905. One imagines that the vast centralised database of A Modern Utopia
that is needed for the surveillance and disposition of the population would necessarily be part of the new and improved "knowledge apparatus" Wells was latter to describe as a World Brain or World Encyclopaedia organisation
The Nature and Unity of Knowledge
The recurrent notion of "directiveness" is ominous in Well's discussions of the fundamental purpose of the encyclopedic organisation - though central to any notion of brain function, the "ruling World Brain" mentioned above (Wells 1938, p. xvi). Wells emphasis on direction and control highlights how far he has travelled from the philosophical underpinnings of the Encyclopédie
of Diderot. This he claimed was one of the sources of his inspiration, especially in its attempt to create a new ideology on which a new kind of society might rest (Wells, 1931, pp.842, 843). "I am," he wrote to Doubleday, "a Utopian liberal socialist, with a scientific training. I consider myself in the line of succession of Diderot" (Wells-Doubleday Memo, , p.3). But he was more. He clearly saw himself as a member of a newly emergent technocratic elite in whom "Science" had vested access to the simplification and absoluteness of Truth amidst all the clamour, strife, ambiguity and confusion of the modern age.
In 1931 he made a broadcast on "What I would do with the world." The premise of the talk was that he was to be made the dictator of the world - an intriguing fiction for one so concerned with ideas of social reformation. As World Dictator, he tells us, he would at once create the World State. It would need to have governing boards for economic affairs and police. "There would also need to be a great world organisation sustaining education, scientific research, and the perpetual revision of ideas." These organisations would represent the end point of a process of administrative and political simplification because they would concentrate and harness the scientific knowledge of experts. It would be they who would carry on the essential business of the planet. "But it may well be asked, Who will make the ultimate decision?" Certainly not a world government, in Wells's view, because none would be necessary: the management of world affairs had been placed in the hands of experts. "Suppose your intellectual organisation, your body of thought, your scientific men, say and prove this, that or the other course is the right
one (Wells's emphasis). Suppose they have the common-sense of an alert and educated community to sustain them. Why should not a dictatorship ' not of this or that man, nor of the proletariat, but of informed and educated common-sense ' some day rule the earth?"(Wells,1931, pp.202-3)
Wells seems here to be once again describing his order of Samurai. He seems committed to the idea that political and social decisions are reducible to questions of scientific ' and economic ' fact. As he envisages the new society that will take shape in the future, the narrator of A Modern Utopia
puts in the mouth of the social scientist de Windt what must be interpreted as Wells's own view. De Windt opposes the parliamentary system of government with its professional Opposition. "'Criticise,' he wrote, 'yes, but don't obstruct.'" De Windt taught that "if a directive organisation is fundamentally bad 'break it and throw it away ." What was intolerable was the "tangle of ideas" engendered by contemporary systems of government. De Windt/Wells believed that: "about most affairs there can be no two respectable and antagonistic opinions' there is one sole right way and endless wrong ways of doing things" (p.256).
Wells appealed, as he grew more urgent with disappointment at the lack of acceptance of his ideas and as the world seemed to draw ever close to the brink of disaster, to a new class, an intellectual elite, into which he defines himself. He refers to "we, I mean the sociologists, the human ecologists'the world intelligentsia and our sort of people generally" (Wells, 1942, pp.20-21). These are the Open Co-conspirators, perhaps conceivable as the forerunners of the Samurai with disciplined minds and steady opinions.
Wells believed that authors ' in fact "the larger part of the world of literary artistry" ' form a class that seems to resemble the poietic class of A Modern Utopia
. He describes it as a class of the "more powerfully receptive types," such as George Bernard Shaw, an old friend though they had a long falling out, and other prominent writers of Wells's day most of whom he knew to a greater or lesser extent. It is clear that for him they could never be part of the administrative and governing elite he had called the Samurai. Such "receptive types" were characterised by the "inner arbitrariness and unreality of the untrained common man." They were "impulsive, uncoordinated, wilful." Wells believed that "their education has been lacking so that they lapse "into inconsistent and dramatised ways of thinking and living." This is unacceptable. It is a fate from which "a more expert and scientific educational process" might have saved them. Ultimately the scientific and technocratic elite whose minds, like Wells's, are "systematically unified" and equipped "to get things ruthlessly mapped out and consistent" (Wells, 1934, p.529) are the ones to "clean up the problem of methods and organisation for the world-mind'" (Wells, 1942, p.20-21). Observations such as these make it clear why Hollinger sees Wells as one of those who form a "peculiar tradition of modernism" which is defined by "its faith in science, its sense that what our civilization requires in order to be rescued from itself is more likely to come from communities of knowers than from a succession of artist-heroes" (Hollinger, 1991, p.43)
The upshot of these views is that Wells seems to suggest that he has no time for dissenting opinions. He clearly devalues the contribution that a multiplicity of viewpoints can make to the discussion of issues and the formation of opinion. He seems to repudiate the inevitable and perhaps necessary ideological conflicts and disagreements that enrich many areas of intellectual and political life and from which new knowledge on the one hand and policy on the other emerges and is tested. It is as though he believed that something akin to doctrinal conformity had become necessary in the face of a world he saw as having become too chaotic and directionless to survive. In 1942 he observed, perhaps echoing the famous phrase in the Outline of History
that human beings faced " a race between education and catastrophe," that "the trend of things is still I believe towards disaster and extinction." But even so, some "obstinate" part of him believed that opportunities remained for creating a "framework of a world order with a world-mind" (Wells, 1942, p.41). Such opportunities had to be seized by his sort of people, a new scientifically educated technocratic elite with orderly minds and the ability to ascertain in the midst of the hurly burly of modern life, the one "right" way of doing things.
ASSESSING WELLS'S WORLD BRAIN
It is easy to read Wells's statements today as expressing an essentially negative vision rather than a positive one, as reflecting perhaps a last and, in the final analysis, desperate appeal by an old, passionate "utopian liberal socialist" for the kind of certainty of truth that characterised the nineteenth century positivist science of his youth. How he invoked the name and nature of science! Yet, while Modern (and Postmodern) scientific and social thought had not yet issued to the mode of knowing to which he appealed the extended challenges that are so much part of the intellectual milieu of the late twentieth century, what he called for was not in the nature of things available to him. He had passed beyond the realms of science, which had nurtured his world view and of whose virtues he was so famously an exponent, to a deep emotional commitment to a social ideology.
Over the decades Wells had lectured often on, and had written voluminously, obsessively about, the coming of a new world order. Described in detail in The Shape of Things to Come
, it was to be a culmination of the evolutionary, psychological, educational and social processes set forth in The Outline of History
, The World Wealth and Happiness of Mankind
and the Science of Life.
In the last and longest chapter of his Experiment in Autobiography
, "The Idea of a Planned World," he discusses the genesis and development of these ideas (Wells 1934a, pp. 549ff). They represent his response to both the geo-political conditions and the science of his times. Especially important was his conviction that the processes of human evolution were being accelerated by the work of modern science. New and valuable forms of social organisation were emerging which continued to be threatened by nationalism, religion, narrow-mindedness, individualism, intolerance, weapons technology and the deepening threat of a new war. How to resist these disruptive forces, while the new kinds of socially desirable developments were urgently and actively delivered into being, was the fundamental problem that society had to grapple with. For Wells, mankind was now, it seemed, at a stage of development where it was possible to take control and direct the processes of evolution, but the balance between extinction and survival was delicate and in 1945, old and ill, Wells finally lost hope and faith (Wells, 1945).
He had put his faith in the reform of education and the creation of a World Brain, a "new encyclopedism." His Science and the World Mind
(Wells, 1942) is a cry for it. But despite the burden of hope with which Wells invested the idea of a World brain, it can be argued that it was for him conceptually no more than an extension of the formidable encyclopedic overviews of knowledge that he had compiled after the First World War and which I have discussed above. Wells tells us that, as he began to make progress on the first of these works, The Outline of History
, he "saw more and more plainly that this was the form, the only right form, in which history should be presented to the ordinary citizen'I realised too that even my arrangement of notes, if it was properly 'vetted' by one or two specialised and authoritative helpers, might be made to serve, provisionally at least, for just that general review of reality of which we stood in such manifest need if any permanent political unity were to be sustained in the world" (Wells 1934, p.614). He believed that together his three large syntheses of the knowledge of the day "'. give a clearer, fuller and compacter summary of what the normal citizen of the modern state should know, than any other group of books in existence. They shape out something that presently will be better done" (p.618). He does admit that they are "exploratory experiments" but he believes that they will help educate people to become "world citizens," and will help to provide a "foundation" for that "common understanding" that is necessary to hold a "world community" together (p. 619), one of the fundamental purposes of his World Brain.
Curiously Wells is describing what might be interpreted as a revival of medieval and renaissance commonplace-books which served as the basis for some of the first modern encyclopedic compilations of knowledge (Moss, 1996). For a seminal author of science fiction whose plots, images and prescient inventions are as potent today as they ever were, this is surely anticlimactic. Technologically, Wells's "World Brain" is remarkably under-imagined and has none of the flashes of imaginative genius that have given such life and power to his books of acknowledged science fiction (11).
In the final analysis, then, it is possible to describe Wells's the World Brain in this way. It is the latest and greatest expression of socio-biological evolution. It is to be the organ that will be at once shaped by, and responsible for, the ultimate success of that "open conspiracy" by means of which scientists and others will create a new world order. As a fundamental aspect of this new world order, it will provide the information necessary for the suppression of dissent and diversity. It will be under the control of an anti-individualist, anti-democratic administrative and scholarly elite, the Competent Receiver and the grandiosely named order of Samurai. These "officials" will carry out their duties and sustain their repressive regimes administratively on the basis of knowledge derived from a huge database in which is integrated information about all aspects of the lives of the citizens under their care. They are to manage broader socio-biological matters relating to the immediate welfare and evolutionary development of the human race, including weeding out the unfit for detention or destruction. The information they need to discharge these responsibilities will be derived from what is no more than a "properly vetted" "arrangement of notes." These notes are to be provided by the personnel constituting the World Brain organisation. These are the "carefully assembled sequence" of "selections, extracts, and quotations" that Wells identifies as grist for the World Brain's cognitive mill (Wells, 1938, pp. 14-15). They are, conceptually no more than an extension of his own notebooks. The World Brain is simply Wells's brain writ large.
Wells's vision of a World brain is troubling in and of itself. But it also raises issues of a broader kind that pose a challenge to contemporary accounts of the Word or Global Brain, whether they echo Wells or not. All of these accounts embrace a kind of evolutionary determinism which suggests that a new kind of sentient super-organism is emerging from the complex social arrangements by which we live our lives. What is being referred to is not simply the modification of existing or even the development of new social and personal arrangements to accommodate new political realities (the new Europe for example) or technological innovation (such as the motor car, the telephone or the Television). Something far beyond the ken of ordinary people and "alive" is envisaged. It is alive also in a way that requires the subordination of the will, intelligence and interests of ordinary people. As individuals are subsumed by or absorbed into it, their independence and instrumentality in their own lives are inevitably curtailed in the expectation of general social betterment rather than an enhancement of individual potential. It is neither tool nor prosthesis but may be interpreted as becoming an expression of totalitarian values and authoritarian control.
World Brain or Global Brain proponents tend to extrapolate quite extravagantly the capabilities and implications of emerging technology. For Wells it was microfilm. Today it is the infinitely more sophisticated Internet and World Wide Web which have enmeshed our globe in a fantastically intricate and diffused communications infrastructure. By means of this technology as World or Global Brain proponents imagine it taking shape, the effective deployment of the entire universe of knowledge will become possible. But this begs unresolved questions about the relative value of the individual and the state, about the nature of individual and social benefits and how they are best to be allocated, about what constitutes freedom and how it might be appropriately constrained. It flies in the face of the intransigent reality that what constitutes the ever-expanding store of human knowledge is almost incalculably massive in scale, is largely viewpoint-dependent, is fragmented, complex, ceaselessly in dispute and always under revision.
Finally, one might ask what happens to individuals and to society when the World or Global Brain malfunctions, whether within the limits of normality or pathologically? What do the limitations and failures that characterise the human brain and with which we are all too familiar, mean for the World or Global Brain? At the level of the psychopathology of everyday life
, through slips of the tongue, misunderstandings, preconceptions, failures of recall, inability to assimilate new ideas, lapses of attention, forgetting, dreams and daydreams, the mind and so the brain is forever tripping us up, letting us down, tricking us, unexpectedly revealing clues to subterranean depths. The human brain is the site of what is irrational as well as what is rational -- and presumably this has implications for the World Brain. Moreover, if we go from the normal to the pathological, how do we deal with the notion of a World Brain that is schizophrenic, demented, subject to cerebral haemorrhage or massive stroke.
Issues such as these are provoked by Wells's account of the World Brain and are implicit in any modern discussion of the idea, whether at the level of metaphor or of a kind of emergent cyborg reality. If the idea is to be useful and its practical realisation convincingly argued, issues such as these must be satisfactorily resolved. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
This paper is based on work completed as George A. Miller Visiting Professor in the University of Illinois during the academic year 1997/8. The author offers thanks to the Centre for Advanced Studies/Miller Committee and the Graduate School of Library and Information Science for this wonderful opportunity. He also wishes to thank the following for their comments and suggestions: at the University of Illinois: Geof Bowker, Betsy Hearne , Cheryl Malone, Andrew Pickering, the members of the Science, Technology, Information, and Medicine (STIM) Group and the members of the GSLIS Doctoral Proseminar, Michael Buckland at the University of California at Berkeley, and Mathew Skelton at Somerville College, Oxford University. FOOTNOTES
(1) Their Web site provides access to a range of relevant materials. See, for example, "Basic References on the Global Brain / Superorganism" http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/gbrainref.html
and Global Brain discussion list archive by date; http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/~majordom/gbrain/
*See in this connection Dilloway (1998)
(3) Reported in a long caption to a picture of Wells planting the tree in the Daily Northwestern
and republished in The H.G.Wells Newsletter
2no.4 (Winter 1982/3): 1
(4) Uwe Jochum sees something rather more anticipatory of contemporary developments in Well's passing references to decentralization and networks than I (Jochum, 1995).
(5) In an earlier paper the author indicated in error that there was no correspondence between Watson Davis and Wells in the Wells Papers at the University of Illinois (Rayward, 1993, p.173). There is in fact a small file with material about Science Service that Davis sent Wells and Wells has annotated a letter from Davis for March 15, 1937)
(6) Pollard was Professor of Physics in Imperial College and had published a translation of the tables for optics of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). The preparation and publication of the UDC was one the raisons d' etre
of the International Institute of Bibliography which had been set up in Brussels in 1895 by Paul Otlet and Henri La Fontaine (Rayward, 1975, 1997). In 1927 Pollard and Bradford and some other colleagues had created the British Society for International Bibliography as the British member of the International Institute of Bibliography of which Pollard was President from 1827 to 1931. Bradford was the great British apologist for the UDC (Rayward 1975, passim
and 1994; Bradford, 1948).
(7) The International Institute of Bibliography had been renamed International Institute of Documentation in 1931 under Pollard's Presidency.
( 8 ) It is interesting in this context to note that in 1925, discussing the nature of the "microphotic book," Goldschmidt and Otlet in Belgium had already developed a similar idea for microphotographic libraries and a Microphotic Encyclopaedia (
Goldschmidt and Otlet, 1925).
(9) I refer for convenience to Wells as the author of this work. He must certainly have been the major author for the parts that I discuss. It is very much his "voice" that one hears in these pages. He describes himself as "the senior member of the firm" who was responsible for "the initiation and organisation of the whole scheme," noting that his contribution was "mainly literary and editorial" (Wells, 1931, p.3).
(10) Wells had scrawled across the top of Johnson's letter, "This bloody fool has disregarded my explicit condition as to the second titles."
(11) It is interesting to compare Wells with Paul Otlet in this context. Otlet believed that Radio, x-rays, cinema and microscopic photography would all eventually be brought together in such a way to form "a mechanical, collective brain" (Otlet, 1935, pp.390-1), a kind of "exodermic appendage to the brain", "a substratum of memory," "an external mechanism and instrument of the mind"(Otlet 1934, p. 428; also Rayward, 1975, 1994b, 1997). I have not found evidence that Wells knew directly of Otlet's work though Otlet had begun publishing about what he was to call documentation as early as 1893. Wells's contacts with the European documentation movement that originated with Otlet seems to have been only through the British documentalists, Pollard and Bradford. Otlet over the years had developed his own ideas about a new form of encyclopedia both as an "Office of Documentation" and as an ever-expansible "Book" drawing on a technology of card and cabinet and later microfilm (Rayward, 1994, 1997). Nevertheless in his remarks at the 1937 documentation congress in Paris, at which both he and Wells spoke, Otlet observed, I assume referring to Wells's talk at the congress, that the ultimate aim of documentation "is to realise the World Encyclopaedia according to the needs of the twentieth century" (Rayward, 1976, p. 358).
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