World Brain: Wells, Welles, Orwell, and the role of information in society

World Brain: Wells, Welles, Orwell, and the role of information in society

Between November 1936 and November 1937, H.G. Wells gave a series of lectures in Great Britain, France, and the US about the world’s impending problems and how to solve them. The lectures were first published under the title “World Brain” in 1938, and they’re sweeping in scope. Wells argued for rearranging both education and the distribution of knowledge and thought we should probably get rid of nationalism while we’re at it. 

MIT Press has just issued a compendium of these lectures, along with related material Wells presented as magazine articles and radio addresses. The collection also includes a foreword by the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling and an introduction by Joseph Reagle, an associate professor of communication studies at Northeastern who writes and teaches about popular culture, digital communication, and online communities

Unequal information

Humanity had all of the information necessary to live together in peace and harmony, Wells told his audiences; the trouble was that this information existed in a disorganized, dispersed state, and most people didn’t have access to it. They certainly didn’t have access to the most up-to-date information, and with the rapid pace of technological advancement in the early twentieth century—leading to cars, planes, and especially radio—information needed updating constantly. 

If only everyone had the same education, the same knowledge, the same understanding of what was important, his thinking went—if only everyone knew the truth—it was inevitable that we’d form a productive, peaceful, global society. Conversely, without his educational reforms, Wells felt there was no way we’d transcend the mess of grubby, meaningless insularities that is our civilization.

Wells was promoting a Permanent World Encyclopedia to collate, standardize, assess, and continually revise the bulk of human knowledge. He wanted knowledge and its dissemination to be centralized—“a World Brain which will replace our multitude of unco-ordinated ganglia… a memory and a perception of current reality for the entire human race.” 

He also wanted to improve education in order to attain “a reconditioned and more powerful public opinion.” He was highly dissatisfied with the university system as it was and wanted to revamp the whole outdated thing. He used the same analogy in each of the lectures, saying, “In transport, we have progressed from coaches and horses by way of trains to electric traction, motor-cars, and aeroplanes. In mental organization, we have simply multiplied our coaches and horses and livery stables.” The world was not the same place it used to be, and he was concerned that those in charge were acting like it was, and to disastrous effect—especially those who negotiated the Treaty of Versaille, ending World War I but leading the world to a very precarious place in 1938. 

We don’t need more of the same type of education if it kept producing the same thinking, he insisted; we need something completely different.

A new education

Wells had jettisoned all of his tribal affiliations long ago and thought that humanity would get along much better if everyone else did the same. His curriculum for the future, unlike the curriculum of his past, didn’t waste time teaching “the peculiar unpleasantness of King James or King John” or “the relative historical insignificance of the events recorded in Kings and Chronicles.” Instead, people would learn “true stories of the past and of other lands” so that everyone would have a sense of the different ways humans can and have lived. 

Patriotism threatens to destroy civilization, he said; kids should be learning what archeologists and anthropologists are deducing every day about the earliest cultures rather than their own particular nationalistic versions of history. As people age and grow, they can specialize, always learning about the latest developments in every field from the constantly updated World Encyclopedia.  

Wells had cool ideas, and he sure could write. “As mankind is, so it will remain, until it pulls its mind together,” he laments. (Although his ability to turn a phrase could occasionally fail; he also wrote, “I imagine this period between 1919 and 1929 will be called the Fatuous Twenties.” Oops.)

It’s all too easy to harp on the subjective nature and paternalism of this plan, coming as it does from a British man speaking from the seat of an Empire. He’s claiming that his curriculum encompasses All the News That’s Fit to Print, and he doesn’t seem to recognize that it’s All the News that he thinks is Fit to Print, or even that those two mottoes aren’t synonymous. 

Why does he get to decide what’s important for everyone the world over to learn? And why does he assume that given the same education, everyone would think the way he does? As forward-thinking as he was, Wells was still a product of his time. (Which might be reason to cut him some slack.)

Wells vs. Orwell

The notion that granting everyone access to the same teachings could save society was not idle speculation on Wells’ part. He was 70 at this point and had become rich, famous, and influential by introducing people to radical new ideas through his writing. He was so influential that, during World War I, the British government appointed him “Director of Enemy Propaganda Against Germany.” So he was well aware of the power of words—particularly his words—to change minds and change lives. (Even though the incontrovertible proof of that power provided by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of his War of the Worlds was still a year in the future).

If a top-down global education system and curriculum sounds a touch Orwellian to you, it sounded that way to George Orwell as well. In 1941, he published “Wells, Hitler, and the World State,” in which he argued that Germany hewed much closer to a well-run society in which everyone thinks similarly and along scientific lines than England ever has. But it was run by a “criminal lunatic,” so that didn’t work out quite as Wells thought it would. Orwell also noted that patriotism, which Wells thought of as civilization-destroying, was the primary force inducing Russians and Britons to fight against Hitler. Thirty-eight-year-old Orwell saw, in a way that 75-year-old Wells couldn’t, that technology and information would hardly lead directly to world peace and harmony.  

Between the two World Wars, Wells looked at the world around him, and it was clear to him that the biggest problem was that people didn’t have access to the newest knowledge. He thought that a Permanent World Encyclopedia couldn’t help but lead to world peace. What Wells promoted actually sounds a lot like Wikipedia. But when we finally had the ability to make his dream into reality, we made the whole rest of the Internet alongside it, which grants everyone access to at least as many lies as it does truth. 

A mere three years after he proposed the encyclopedia, Orwell looked at the world around him and concluded that it couldn’t help but lead to authoritarian regimes, which were by nature barbaric. Eighty-four years later, we walk around with a Permanent World Encyclopedia in our pockets, but it has neither brought humanity together in harmony nor created some groupthink dystopia à la Camazotz. It has done a little of both. Instant access to the sum of human knowledge has allowed far-flung, like-minded people to find each other and coalesce into supportive communities. But it has also enabled people to retreat deeper into their own ideological silos.

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