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World Brain - H. G. Wells ***

Today, we mostly remember H. G. Wells as a writer of science fiction, but he was a prolific non-fiction author (not to mention penning comic/romantic novels such as The History of Mister Polly, which became Half a Sixpence as a film). To those used to his tightly crafted science fiction, the non-fiction can be distinctly disappointing. In its day, some of it was very popular, but now it comes across as turgid and mannered. But this little book, which I'd never seen before, is a bit lighter on the reader, in part because its main content is a series of speeches on a concept that some suggest prefigures Wikipedia - there's an element of truth in that, but Wells' intent was much broader.

While I hadn't come across the speeches that are pulled together in World Brain, I was aware of the suggestion that Vannevar Bush's 1930s memex concept was a sort of precursor of hypertext based on the then hot new technology of microfilm. Wells is also influenced by the ability of microfilm to provide an information revolution in developing his concept of a 'World Encyclopaedia'. 

Each of the five main sections of this very short book (not published in this form in Wells' day) is made up of the text of a speech based on different slices of Wells' overall vision. At its heart was an encyclopaedia of all modern knowledge that would be constantly updated by thousands of experts. But behind the technology was the vision of Wells the internationalist, who believed the nation state must pass away to bring world peace and felt that universal access to the truth would enable the uneducated masses to move towards this goal. (He is, admittedly very vague as to how this transition would take place.)

If the book was just this it would get pretty tedious, but what is particularly interesting is the way every section, each a speech that was given to a different body, takes on a distinctly different flavour. As well as the goal of intellectually hauling up the masses to move beyond their petty nationalism, in one section we see the imagined encyclopaedia mechanism as a way for professionals to share information, in another we see Wells devising a universal system for a fact-based part of the school curriculum, as he felt that the whole education system was in need of an overhaul (aspects of his criticisms still apply to the way we teach today).

Although we can enthusiastically support Wells' pacifist goals - the book pulls together speeches he gave in the lead up to the Second World War - there is no doubt that with hindsight we can also discover a deep naivety in his vision. The idea that his World Encyclopaedia would contain the true facts about everything from history to physics inevitably now begs the question 'Whose truth?' Even physics has plenty of dispute (what would Wells' truth be between dark matter and MOND, for example?). But the idea that anyone could agree on a 'true facts' version of history would surely have seemed a fantasy even to someone sharing the then seventy-year-old Wells' idealism. For that matter the underlying assumption that simply making information available to everyone would enable massive political transformation to take place was one that even then must have seemed more than a little over-optimistic.

This is a not a particularly easy little book to read, but for anyone with an interest in how the modern Information Age has shaped our world - and how that might have been anticipated in the 1930s - not to mention those who are doubtful about the way we teach our children - this is a text that is worth perusing.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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