Saturday, May 24, 2014

Paul Otlet, a great man way before his time

Otlet an idealistic, Belgian visionary thought that exposing the interconnectedness of the world's information would make it a more peaceful place. He could foresee a day when

All the things of the universe and all those of man would be registered from afar as they were produced. Thus the moving image of the world would be established—its memory, its true duplicate. From afar anyone would be able to read the passage, expanded or limited to the desired subject, that could be projected on his individual screen. Thus, in his armchair, anyone would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.
Unfortunately, he lived from 23 August 1868 – 10 December 1944. He had no reasonable way to realize his vision. He thought of the world as a collection of Documents that needed to be classified and cross referenced. To this end he designed an extremely elaborate cataloging system called the Universal Decimal System that he then used to create a mammoth collection (12 million) of index cards. 

He got all this funded to create an impressive operation called the Mundaneum but like any failed startup, his backers  eventually refused to infuse more capital and the Mundaneum folded. He died mostly a forgotten man, although not soon thereafter, in 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote the seminal Atlantic article that in several ways presaged the WWW. 

There is a new book about Otlet, but to get a really deep sense of who this man was and what he tried to do, I highly recommend wonderfully evocative online exhibit of Molly Springfield called Inside the Mundaneum

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