Google Blogoscoped

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Herbert George Wells on the World Encyclopaedia (1936)

The following excerpts are from a lecture by H.G. Wells given at the Royal Institution of Great Britan on November 20th, 1936 (“World Encyclopaedia”), as well as – for the first two paragraphs – from the preface to the book which collects this lecture and more (called World Brain from 1938; the book is currently shown out of print at Amazon).

The World Brain

“We want a reconditioned and more powerful Public Opinion. In a universal organization 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 unco-ordinated ganglia, our powerless miscellany of universities, research institutions, literatures with a purpose, national education systems and the like”

“We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself.”

Assembling specialists

“A distinguished specialist is precious because of his cultivated gift. It does not follow at all that by the standards of all-round necessity he is a superior person. Indeed by the very fact of his specialization he may be less practised and competent than the average man.”

“I think we should get the very gist of this problem if we could compare twelve miscellaneous men of science and special skill, with twelve unspecialized men taken – let us say – from the head clerk’s morning train to the city. We should probably find that for commonplace team-work and the ordinary demands and sudden urgencies of life, the second dozen was individually quite as good as, if not better than, the first dozen. In a burning hotel or cast away on a desert island they would probably do quite as well. And yet collectively they would be ill-informed and limited men; the whole dozen of them would have nothing much more to tell you than any one of them.”

“On the other hand our dozen specialists would each have something distinctive to tell you ... The more you got them together the more they would signify.”

The World Encyclopaedia

“I want to suggest that something – a new social organ, a new institution – which for a time I shall call World Encyclopaedia, is the means whereby we can solve the problem of that jig-saw puzzle and bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding”

“I will take it first from the point of view of the ordinary educated citizen ... From his point of view the World Encyclopaedia would be a row of volumes in his own home or in some neighbouring house or in a convenient public library or in any school or college, and in this row of volumes he would, without any great toil or difficulty, find in clear understandable language, and kept up to date, the ruling concepts of our social order, the outlines and main particulars in all fields of knowledge, an exact and reasonably detailed picture of our universe, a general history of the world, and if by any chance he wanted to pursue a question into its ultimate detail, a trustworthy and complete system of reference to primary sources of knowledge. In fields where wide varieties of method and opinion existed, he would find, not casual summaries of opinions, but very carefully chosen and correlated statements and arguments.”

“The modern World Encyclopaedia should consist of selections, extracts, quotations, very carefully assembled with the approval of outstanding authorities in each subject, carefully collated and edited and critically presented. It would not be a miscellany, but a concentration, a clarification and a synthesis.”

The role of the World Encyclopaedia

“Every fresh mind should be brought into contact with its standing editorial organization. And on the other hand its content would be the standard source of material for the instructional side of school and college work, for the verification of facts and the testing of statements – everywhere in the world.”

“It would do just what our scattered and disoriented intellectual organizations of today fall short of doing. It would hold the world together mentally.”

Dealing with conflicting opinions

“How often do we see men misrepresenting each other in order to exaggerate a difference and secure the gratification of an argumentative victory! A World Encyclopaedia as I conceive it would bring together into close juxtaposition and under critical scrutiny many apparently conflicting systems of statement. It might act not merely as an assembly of fact and statement, but as an organ of adjustment and adjudication, a clearing house of misunderstandings; it would be deliberately a synthesis, and so act as a flux and a filter for a very great quantity of human misapprehension. It would compel men to come to terms with one another.”


“And next let us take this World Encyclopaedia from the point of view of the specialist and the super-intellectual ... On the assumptions that the World Encyclopaedia is based on a world-wide organization he will be ... a corresponding associate of the Encyclopaedia organization. He will be able to criticize the presentation of his subject, to suggest amendments and re-statements. For a World Encyclopaedia that was kept alive and up to date by the frequent re-issue of its volumes, could be made the basis of much fundamental discussion and controversy.”

The Encyclopaedia Society

“How can it be set going? How can it be organized and paid for?”

“We want, shall I call it, an Encyclopaedia Society to ask for an Encyclopaedia and get as many people as possible asking for an Encyclopaedia. Directly that Society asks for an Encyclopaedia it will probably have to resort to precautionary measures against any enterprising publisher who may see in that demand a chance for selling some sort of vamped-up miscellany as the thing required”

Citing is preferred over original writing

“I must repeat that for the purposes of a World Encyclopaedia probably we would not want much original writing. If a thing has been stated clearly and compactly once for all, why paraphrase it or ask some inferior hand to restate it? Our job may be rather to secure the use of copyrights, and induce leading exponents of this or that field of science or criticism to co-operate in the selection, condensation, expansion or simplification of what they have already said so well.”

A world monopoly

“[T]his World Encyclopaedia as I conceive it, if only because it will have roped in the larger part of the original sources of exposition, discussion and information, will be in effect a world monopoly, and it will be able to levy and distribute direct and indirect revenue, on a scale quite beyond the resources of any private publishing enterprise.”

Dangers of buying the movement

“[O]f course from the very start, various opinionated cults and propagandists will be doing their best to capture or buy the movement. Well, we mustn’t be captured or bought, and in particular our silence must not be bought or captured.”

Dangers of gang forming

“And there will be a constant danger that some of the early promoters may feel and attempt to realize a sort of proprietorship in the organization, to make a group or a gang of it. But to recognize that danger is half-way to averting it.”

The Encyclopaedia’s language

“I think that the main text should be in one single language, from which translations in whole or part could be made ... I do not think I am giving way to any patriotic bias when I suggest that unless we contemplate a polyglot publication ... English because it has a wider range than German, a greater abundance and greater subtlety of expression than French and more precision than Russian, is the language in which the original text of a World Encyclopaedia ought to stand.”

Spreading like a nervous network

“You see how such an Encyclopaedia organization could spread like a nervous network, a system of mental control about the globe, knitting all the intellectual workers of the world through a common interest and a 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.”

“I believe that in some such way as I have sketched ... the mental forces now largely and regrettably scattered and immobilized in the universities, the learned societies, research institutions and technical workers of the world could be drawn together in a real directive world intelligence, and by that mere linking and implementing of what is known, human life as a whole could be made much surer, stronger, bolder and happier than it has ever been up to the present time.”

The only hope

“Let me be very clear upon one point.”

“I am not saying that a World Encyclopaedia in itself solve any single one of the vast problems that must be solved if man is to escape from his present dangers and distresses and enter upon a more hopeful phase of history: what I am saying – and saying with the utmost conviction – is this, that without a World Encyclopaedia to hold men’s minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality, there is no hope whatever of anything but an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles.”

“Our species may yet end its strange eventful history as just the last, the cleverest of the great apes. The great ape that was clever – but not clever enough. It could escape from most things but not from its own mental confusion.”


Blog  |  Forum     more >> Archive | Feed | Google's blogs | About


This site unofficially covers Google™ and more with some rights reserved. Join our forum!