Our World Brain – The Permanent Encyclopedia of H.G. Wells




 

OUR WORLD BRAIN
BY
DAVID ARTHUR WALTERS

 

 

There will not be an illiterate left in the world. There will hardly be an uninformed or misinformed person. And the brain of the whole mental network will be the Permanent World Encyclopedia. H.G. Wells

Most of us think of H.G. Wells as a science-fiction novelist, author of such entertaining works as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. But Wells thought of himself, first of all, as a teacher. Zoology was the first subject he taught. While attending teacher’s college in South Kensington, young Wells was profoundly influenced by professor T.H. Huxley, zoologist turned propagandist, known as ‘Darwin’s bulldog.’ Having taken Huxley’s ‘Course on Comparative Anatomy’, Well’s believed that the study of biology was essential to the understanding of physical life and necessary for the unity of a comprehensive education. Biology placed man in time and space and studied him for what he is, finite but not final, a compromising and adapting being. From the study of biology, the student passes on to other subjects – psychology, philosophy, economics, and so on – best studied systematically according to an encyclopedic scheme: a circle of knowledge hierarchically arranged to suit the natural development of the student from ‘roots to branches’ – Wells particularly admired the system of John Comenius. In his book Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind, Wells stated that historical biology is a “prelude to history.” Biology is a branch of ecology, which is the science of the general welfare of the species. Economics evolves from biology and is the science of work and wealth. With the increasing coalescence of once independent human groupings, the general history of our species has become an ecological study outlining the history of socialization and communication.

Following Huxley’s lead, Wells viewed the human mind as an evolutionary cerebral development reaching far beyond biological evolution per se, to man’s ability to conduct himself ethically or unethically and to determine his own destiny. Nature is ethically neutral, hence it is up to man to strive for goodness while assuming the best possible outcomes will emerge from that ethical struggle. In The Fate of Man, Wells reminds us that the history of biological evolution is more of a history of failure, defeat, and extinction than of successful adaptation: the list of threatened species grows longer as we speak, and we are on the list. Our large brains provide an enormous social advantage, facilitating the accumulation, storage, manipulation and communication of knowledge. We are social creatures; as individuals we are far less free than we like to think. Wells wrote, “From the biological point of view all this cerebro-social accumulation of knowledge, beliefs and ideas, responsibilities and dependency, is as much a natural adjustment to needs and environment as a claw or a skill or a swimming bladder…. It is subject to the same ecological laws.” Furthermore, with his advancing socialization, man’s adaptation has become more of a struggle with himself than with the rest of the natural environment: “The essential story of history and pre-history is he story of the adaptation of the social-educated superstructure of the animal man to the novel problems with which his own enterprise and inventiveness have been continually confronting him. Law, religion, education, are from the ecological point of view, names we give to the cardinal aspects of the process of adaptation.” However, “there is no immediate survival value in truth. To this day the survival value of the critical habit of mind is questionable.” Myths and community mores used to be sufficient for survival. Now man has developed a complex cerebral culture encircling the globe. Nonetheless, the theory of evolution does not guarantee his success, nor does his present ethical stage; quite to the contrary: man is an intelligent brute whose progress is not inevitable: a mere ‘slip’ such as the detonation of a nuclear weapon could bring about an atomic war resulting in the premature extinction of the race as we know it.

Man’s adaptation to the environment and his struggle to survive by manipulating that environment resulted in civilizations, in common minds and cultures, the forms of which come and go but on the whole tend to coalesce over time as the world virtually shrinks with technological advances. Therefore every ethical human being who wants to consciously participate in this process for the best possible outcomes should study biological history. Wells complained of the “blackest ignorance” of university students who were studying ‘advanced’ history, philosophy and economics, yet general biology was being ignored. As for the subject we normally entitle ‘history,’ a comprehensive moral history should be mandatory; that is, not just any particular history of this or that should be a required study, but rather the universal history of mankind as a whole – the history of Everyman: where he came from, where he is at present, and where he is going.

We naturally want a meaning or purpose for life because we are self-conscious, purposeful beings. Of course individual interests vary and they range from short-term to long-term, yet our ideal universal history is a moral history, a history of the mental culture of humankind on its moral mission – incidentally, we do not have to worry about the traditional use of the masculine case here, for Wells was, according to even the most radical female equalitarians of his day, a real feminist. The universe we know is a continuous inorganic-organic relation existing for us through our intuition of the fundamental categories, time and space. Our universe in time, then, is historical in the most general sense, but it can be philosophically analyzed into broad categories for further study in mental space. For instance, the History of Life, the History of Matter, and the History of Man in his unique spiritual synthesis of animal life and inanimate material world. Wells the teacher preferred such a general view of things in contrast to the divisive attitudes and fragmented consciousness of his time. He purposed to teach us our progress from Beast to God by “twisting minds to a new set of values.”

As an author Wells could not help writing about current topics, therefore he considered himself to be a journalist of ephemeral news rather than the author of immortal works some of his critics – such as H.L. Mencken – wanted him to be. The great bulk of his work whether fiction or nonfiction was didactic. Take for instance the August 1937 article he contributed to the Encyclopedie Francaise, entitled ‘The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia,’ and also the lecture, ‘World Encylopedia’, he delivered to the Royal Institution of Great Britain on November 20th, 1936: both are included in his book, World Brain.

We must keep in mind that H.G. Wells and his contemporaries had just experienced the devastation of the Great War and the poverty of the Great Depression, soon to be followed by World War II. Wells believed the disintegrative evils of his age were due to an incoherent and divisive education that should be replaced by a wholesome education. Therefore one crucial instrument the world required for the perpetuation of peace of mind and body was a Permanent World Encyclopedia for universal education; Wells recommended that an institution of leading experts be organized to create one.

“Both the assembling and distribution of knowledge in the world are extremely ineffective,” Wells wrote, “and thinkers of the forward-looking type… are beginning to realize that the most hopeful line for the development of our racial intelligence lies rather in the direction of creating a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing and release of knowledge, than in any further tinkering with the highly conservative and resistant university system…. These innovators, who may be dreamers today, but who hope to become very active organizers tomorrow, project a unified, if not a centralized, world organ to ‘pull the mind of the world together’, which will be not so much a rival to the universities, as a supplementary and co-ordinating addition to their educational activities – on a planetary scale.”

Continuing with his prophecy of an Information Age, Wells proceeded to discuss the work of American microfilm experts who were making facsimiles of texts and pictures for viewing throughout the world, a technology he calls a “fact of tremendous significance… (that) foreshadows a real intellectual unification of our race…. There is no practical obstacle whatever now to the creation of an efficient index to all human knowledge, ideas and achievements, to the creation, that is, of a complete planetary memory for all mankind.”

The Permanent World Encyclopedia envisioned by Wells is “compact in its material form and… gigantic in its scope and possible influence.” Of course the gigantic mass of information must be organized by professional editors, teachers, and educators for its multiple uses, “into a series of summaries of greater or less fullness and simplicity, for the homes and studies of ordinary people, for the college and the school…. These “condensations and abstracts incorporated into the world educational system, will supply the humanity of the days before us, with a common understanding and the conception of a common purpose and of a commonweal such as now we hardly dare dream of.”

Wells dreamed that the Permanent World Encyclopedia would cause world peace to “imperceptibly” creep up on conflicting parties and deprive them of their present reality of violent conflicts. “A common ideology based on this Permanent World Encyclopedia is a possible means, to some it seems the only means, of dissolving human conflict into unity.” He knocked on many doors to sell his encyclopedia; he wrote an enormously popular universal history as his contribution to the salvation project, Outline of History, followed by a short summary book, but he did not persevere with the encyclopedia project; he believed it was premature and thought it would have to be preceded by the formation of a socialist association of bourgeoise experts he called the ‘Open Conspiracy’ – H.G. was not a class-conflict Marxist – who would be responsible for the formation of an “organized civilized world state.”

Sixty years later, following in the footsteps of H.G. Wells and other, ancient, medieval and modern encyclopedia salesmen, we still entertain projects for the universal organization of knowledge and therefore of a utopian world order if not the Restoration of the Golden Age. Some encyclopedias were gazed upon as divine mirrors during the Middle Ages; since man was created in God’s image, by studying the reflection of God’s mind in the encyclopedia in conjunction with God’s two other books, Nature and the Bible, man could rid himself of distortions and be God’s true image. With that picture in mind, we can better understand the statement of Well’s socialist friend and critic, Beatrice Webb, about the fanatic faith socialists had in science as salvation; that science, especially sociology, would transform man into what vulgar people worshiped as God.

We might inquire why universal peace would necessarily follow from common knowledge. After all, people who have the same education and who profess the same beliefs have been known to behave differently and even to kill each other. On the other hand, we know of people whose education differs and who have different beliefs yet they behave the same way in respect to the same situations. No doubt the sociologists will write a cogent article answering that question in our new encyclopedia. And we may come across an answer to that question when we discuss Wells’ New Bible of Civilization elsewhere – he used the Bible as his model – his encyclopedia upgrades and updates the Bible.

At present our dreams are postmodern: they are not as well defined or Cartesian as those entertained by Wells. Nor do many of us wish for his kind of freedom-in-order today. Of course we do not blame him for wanting a peaceful order. Wells the socialist was confronted by world in chaos, by devastating disorders all around; he became so desperate during the Great War that he even turned to God for awhile.

Now that ‘socialism’ has become synonymous with Communism, it might be best to say Wells was a ‘utopian’ socialist, a kind of socialism we students of history should study intensely now that Red Communism is rapidly becoming moot: many of us ‘alienated’ beings would certainly appreciate some sort of meaningful outline of our bright future, no matter under what colors it might fly. We can see from his writings that the ‘utopian’ label irked him; we don’t blame him: the Communists laid claim to being the sole social science, and anyone who varied from the party line as to the inevitable future envisioned by scientific materialism was scoffed at as an ivory-tower dreamer of impossible utopias. Wells’s scientific mind rebelled against political dogma. He believed true socialism was scientific, therefore subject to critical methodology. Socialism is an open cooperation of social scientists who collaborate to create a “constructive design” for a social “garden” where living things grow, and not the horrible totalitarian utopias presented by science fiction. As it is now, under irrational notions such a the pseudo-Darwinian liberalism with its reliance on the Invisible Hand and libertarian non-intervention, people are leading wasteful lives and are themselves being wasted by war, disease, starvation, and so on.

H.G. was not a Bolshevik but he did have his sympathies. His political idol was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whom he thought might be an Open Conspirator. He corresponded and met with Roosevelt, Lenin and Stalin; the recorded meeting with Stalin is particularly interesting. We have noted above that Wells – the ‘vulgar’ generalist with a holistic vision of the world – would rely on experts to put together our World Encyclopedia and World State. During his meeting with Stalin, Wells argued that large-scale planning was necessary for any modern system to succeed, hence politicians would have to rely on the Open Conspiracy of experts and intelligent workers from science, business and industry who shared a common vision of a peaceful world state – most would of course be from the bourgeoisie. Stalin countered that experts are not a class unto themselves but are merely hirelings of the conflicting classes. Furthermore, experts had stood in his way, sabotaging his reforms; then he chided Wells for believing men, particularly the bourgeoisie, were innately good. In any case, the proletariat must be served. But Wells believed the ‘proletariat’ is a political fiction akin to ‘the People.’ Nonetheless, He got the impression that Stalin was a “candid, honest and fair man.”

Now, then, the memory of our own relatively peaceful generation is rather short; we might enjoy the entertaining war movies, but few people care to study our racial history; that is, the history of human race, and how we must progress to a global order. In fact, the world is all too integrated and orderly for the liking of many ‘post-modern’ people, some of whom hate the very idea of a global order – I myself have literally raved against it at length, urging people to refuse to ‘adapt and adjust’ to ‘neo-liberal corporatism.’ Culture is of course mental, and multi-culturalists, sometimes unfairly associated with “the forces of darkness, tribalism, anarchism, and the Oklahoma bombing,” do not appreciate the supposedly Western ideal of universal truths for everyone. Again, we notice that Wells’ encyclopedia is to be composed by the leading authorities – we might worry about how “imperceptible” its imposition might be if people do not accept the ideological brainwashing the select experts have conceived in their highly educated minds.

Humans are indeed social animals, but each individual is a rebel, especially the red-blooded, U.S. American individual. Americans, for example, did not support President Wilson’s League of Nations; without the might of the United States backing it, the League folded when major problems emerged. Several European committees had formed during the Great War to advocate a league of nations; Wells was a foremost advocate for such a league, but he did not like the League of Nations as it was established, because his version of a league would have been a world state with a monopoly on violence. In his lecture to the Royal Institution, he quoted Maynard Keynes statement, in Keynes’The Economic Consequences of the Peace, to the effect that the politicians and statesmen responsible for making the peace were ignorant and incompetent to do the business at hand.

“The same terrifying sense of insufficient mental equipment,” Wells remarked, “was dawning upon upon some of us who watched the birth of the League of Nations. Reluctantly and with something like horror, we realized that these people who were, they imagined, turning over a new page and beginning a fresh chapter in human history, knew collectively hardly anything about the formative forces of history. Collectively, I say. Although the had very considerable amount of knowledge, unco-ordinated bits of quite good knowledge, some about this period and some about that, but they had no common understanding whatever of the processes in which they were obliged to mingle and interfere.”

It seems that even a cursory study of world history would make it self-evident that long-term peace can only be secured between states that are subject to an overwhelming power, either by mutual agreement or by conquest. The United States is a case on point, a federation voluntarily constituted, but one that had to be sealed in blood because no adequate provision was included in the Constitution for the peaceful settlement of the slavery controversy. Or, consider that the Warring States Period of China was gradually brought to end by the dominating power of the Ch’in state (from which the West derived the name ‘China’) and a two-thousand year empire was finally instituted by the military and diplomatic efforts of King Chao of Ch’in, who then named himself Ch’in Shih Huang Ti (Zhuangdi: First Sovereign Emperor)- Chairman Mao, in turn, emulated Zhuangdi.

Wells referred to the federal union of the United States in his April 15, 1929 speech before the Reichstag in Berlin: the lesson from American history “is that an enduring Pax is only to be obtained by pooling sovereignty in relation to the main causes of stress between the originally separate communities. Every stop you make towards peace therefore means a loss of separateness, a loss of independence. Peace and national independence are incompatible – our world is refusing to see it.”

But the United States is an empire unto itself and its leaders are disinclined to subordinate the national interest to the various machinations of an international tribunal. The United States follows the more scientific or sociological approach within its own borders, but maintains a selfish approach in respect to the rest of the world, where the law of the jungle tends to prevail instead of the law of a world state with a monopoly on violence. When one has more power, one might not want to merge with a lower power: witness what Entropy did to Germany when East was unified with West; that is the least severe case of what might happen when wealth and poverty are merged – a hot economy and a cold economy equals a luke warm economy. Returning to the United States, we note for instance that the United States refused to pay its debt to the United Nations for some time, and that President Bush recently thumbed his bellicose nose at the U.N., saying if it does not go along with the U.S. plan, the U.S. will proceed without its blessing.

No, unless people are terrorized into drawing their wagons into a circle, they and their minds would rather run free. It is highly unlikely that a universal encyclopedia, either a hierarchy or a circle of knowledge or both, will ever be accepted as a World Brain, except perhaps in heaven. If the end of education is utopia, we might not like any particular definition of heaven imposed on Earth. T.H. Huxley’s grandson, Aldous, grew cynical in that respect, wrote Brave New World, turned to meditation and hallucinogens, and proclaimed pacific love to be the true path to world peace. In The Outlook for Homo Sapiens,Wells scoffed at the sort of man who took the passive approach to the world’s problems: “He is likely to fall back at this stage upon that Bible of the impotent genteel, Huxley’s Brave New World, and implore you to read it. You brush that disagreeable fantasy aside and continue to press him. He says that nature made man unequal, and you reply that that is no reason for exaggerating the fact….”

Permanent World Encyclopedia: without a common mind we can hardly obtain a commonweal. The concept of some sort of universal mental agreement will always have its appeal, and especially so when the neo-liberal as well as the neo-Darwinian life seems disoriented, purposeless, meaningless, and stagnant, now that every neo-liberal democrat is a frustrated neo-Darwinian aristocrat struggling in the war of all against all for survival of the fittest, who evolve to survive on inherited power even if their descendents are effete degenerates, that the rest of humankind may have something intentionally made scarce to strive for. A few outsiders will successfully adapt and find themselves circulating in the winning circle. But so what? Is the human race a vicious cycle going nowhere? We hope not, therefore let us not throw away our dreams of a Permanent World Encyclopedia – our libraries and universities are existing encyclopedias, circles of knowledge or curriculums: would we throw them away because of their defects? We have managed to defy gravity and manage our own evolution; perhaps we can invent a new educational wheel that moves forward in history for the sake of universal human progress. In fact, Wells says that is the only way to travel if our species would survive the evolution of its brain:

“I am not saying that a World Encyclopedia will 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 Encyclopedia to hold men’s minds together in something like a common interpretation of reality, there is no hope whatever of anything by an accidental and transitory alleviation of any of our world troubles…. Never was a living species more perilously poised than ours at the present time. If it does not take thought to end its present mental indecisiveness catastrophe lies ahead. 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 confusion.”

The United States has experienced several wars since World War II. Many of us grew up with the threat of nuclear war – the rich kids I knew had bunkers in their yards. However, the generation now peaking recently felt quite safe in the United States, impervious to the world history that is mankind ‘s tragic criminal record. The nuclear threat seemed to disappear with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Since the Vietnam war, our advanced technology has saved us from suffering many casualties. Many of us fell asleep at the wheel of history; now our slumber has been interrupted by a new kind of war, a war with a few terrorists who could take millions of our lives. The leaders of Islam say many of their people lack a good education, not only a technical education but the liberal education the old encyclopedias used to be organized around. Now we are again in a precarious position, on the verge of unimaginable horrors, but our leaders call us only to the continuation of the old processes protected by the making of war, not to the establishment of an enduring world peace.

Alas, we might have avoided our current predicament if only the people of the world had remembered the terrible accidents of the past, had kept their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road laid out ahead. But there was no road laid out ahead. The rule became, “Go forth and multiply, produce and consume and much as you can.” Few leaders had a broad vision of where humankind came from or where it is going. Indeed, if a leader does not have a map and a compass and a vision of where he is taking his followers, he is a charlatan: he should be fired before it is too late.

Indeed, we should all have a copy of the map and the vision. Public education does not provide us with a universal education, not even at the university level where collegial unity was supposed to be inspired by liberty from the selfish narrow-mindedness as the root of violent conflicts. But the university is becoming more and more specialized, fragmented and disjointed every day, and serves the military-industrial complex. Too many students care less about the subjects studied; they attend only because they must attend to get a higher income; their unity is centered around sports instead of liberty. Pigskins are awarded instead of lambskins. Life for many graduates is a corporate football game where coaches are called into ‘fast-paced’ companies to coach ‘teams’ of highly motivated and ambitious people to meet ‘deadlines’ – to lead a productive life – the Surgeon General’s definition of mental health – of evermore production and consumption.

We certainly are integrated for the production and consumption of goods and services, most of which we do not need and must be coached to want, but otherwise we feel disintegrated and alienated. The holy bibles are fine encyclopedias for faithful people, especially for those headed to heaven, but everyone does not accept the same bible, and multitudes have even murdered each other in the name of the same god. In any event, it is high time we once again seriously take up the idea of a World Encyclopedia and run with it. H.G. Wells was excited by the future of microfilm technology and prophesied the Information Age in contrast to the Age of Specialization, which he deemed absurd and regressive. We have reason to be even more excited by the Internet, provided we put it to good use.

The World Wide Web was introduced shortly after the advent of the Internet. Futurists who believed the Web was science fiction coming true called it a World Brain. Individuals were thrilled by the prospect of becoming even more “empowered” than Francis Bacon, the King’s powerful High Chancellor, ever dreamed of before he said, “Knowledge is power” and wrote down a system for organizing knowledge that revolutionized the encyclopedia business. Postmodern business people and politicians, seeing in the Internet an extraordinary opportunity for public profit and manipulation, were more than enthusiastic than ever about seizing even more power with this new tool, hopefully with the help of other people’s money. Educators had their grand dreams for the new territory, along the lines of George Washington and John Quincy Adams, for the highest and best public use of the Internet, but as the fantastic new medium for the conveyance of intellectual wealth was given away and commercialized on Jacksonian principles, their dreams gradually faded.

The Internet is not all it was panned out to be. Nevertheless, regardless of our ideological persuasions and even though we might have been badly burned investing in it, those of us who can afford computers and Internet fees like it very much, thank you. And who knows what the future might bring? Perhaps some of the hype will come true after all if the World Brain is put to its highest and best use. This is the kind of cooperative thing Wells envisioned. The Internet “brain” has thousands of human minds designing, manufacturing, operating it, and millions use it at any given moment. If only part of it were devoted to a scientific project along the lines of a Permanent World Encyclopedia.

Since the Internet is an efficient medium for the global transmission of knowledge about things, it is no wonder people already think of it as a World Brain or a vast common library from which all people can get a good education about all things; an education that might, among other useful things, bring the people of the world together in peaceful endeavors instead of vain and vicious arguments and violent conflicts. But that is far from the truth. We might be able to purchase and/or use a good encyclopedia or a course of education on the Internet, but the Internet is not systematically organized to bring people together on common ground to provide them with a well-rounded education conducive to world peace. Unless a student is willing to pay for reliable, systematically organized information, he will waste his time on the Internet and he will become as scatter-brained and ill-informed as the fragmented sources produced by search engines – Garbage In, Garbage Out. No, the Internet is not a universal library or encyclopedia, but it certainly might be an excellent medium for the distribution of a core education as well rounded as our globe. It is high time for us to seize the Internet and put it to its highest and best use.



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