May 1, 2006
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The World Brain

by H. G. Wells

Out of print and forgotten, this volume collects lectures and articles Wells wrote to describe his project for a universal networked encyclopedia. Wells has many of the key elements of the Memex and the Web, including an interesting emphasis on the importance of transclusion that anticipates Ted Nelson. He envisions the encyclopedia as the work of an open, international scholarly cooperative with a distributed infrastructure and networked management -- Wikipedia, in essence, with a sounder institutional basis and more elaborate editorial structure. Wells also foresees obstacles, such as intellectual property laws, fanatics and zealots (especially in matters that touch on religion), and storage capacity that would go on to bedevil information science for the rest of the 20th century.

Wells misses electronics, as everyone did. He does observe that reference and support material could be stored on microfilm, copies to microfiches on demand, and mailed to customers on demand; while this might have been cumbersome, it would place the tools in the hands of families of modest means. Bush's Memex was always destined to be reserved for captains of industry and his computer was a behemoth of such great cost that it would require a vast staff to keep the machine occupied and productive around the clock.

Rescued from oblivion by Michael Buckland, this interesting little volume is not difficult to locate through the Web via the used-book consortia such a aLibris and AbeBooks that the realization of Wells' vision have made practical.