Paul Otlet and the prehistory of the web

12 Feb 2023 09:09 - 17 Jun 2023 08:29
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    • This was for a presentation at a work seminar
        • 2014 biography / history
      • Lineage of Information Visionaries
        • Tim Berners-Lee (WWW, 1989)
        • Ted Nelson (Hypertext, __Computer Lib/Dream Machines__, 1974)
        • Doug Engelbart (NLS, Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework, 1962)
        • Vannevar Bush (Memex, As We May Think, 1945)
        • Paul Otlet ???
      • Timeframe: 1900-1940
        • before digital, but not that long before
        • age of grand museums and World Fairs.
        • institutions of international collaboration forming.
        • general information explosion
        • radio and early telephony was the state of the art in media technology
      • Search Engine of the 1900s
        • Image
      • Otlet's story
        • Belgian, "a painfully shy and preternaturally serious young man"
        • Obsessed with museums and cataloging at an early age
        • Leading to visions of a global interconnected information world
        • Globalist institutions of cooperation (Union of International Associations)
        • Unlike some (HG Wells) actually built out his visions
        • But ran into two World Wars
        • Forgotten and recently rediscovered
      • 1892: "Something about Bibliography"
        • books were an inadequate way to store information,
          • because the arrangement of facts contained within them was arbitrary
          • Instead, a system of cards with individual chunks of information
          • Together with "a very detailed synoptic outline of knowledge" that could allow classification and retrieval
      • 1895 - Universal Bibliography
        • founded the Institut International de Bibliographie (IIB) in 1895
        • "an inventory of all that has been written at all times, in all languages, and on all subjects"
        • 1896 - builds the first search engine (by mail, ultimately scaled to 1500 queries/year)
        • nothing less that a world depot, where all human ideas can be automatically stored in order to be spread afterwards among people with a minimum of efforts....a central institution where all who hope to collaborate on the progress of humanity will be able, immediately and mechanically, to obtain the most detailed and complete information.
      • Architecture and algorithms for cataloging and access
      • Conceptual Combinator Language
        • Starting from something similar to Dewey Decimal System
          • + multiple topics from a single source
          • : combined categories
          • () place
          • = language
          • "" time periods
      • Institution Building
        • Union of International Associations
          • Still exists under a UN mandate – sort of a meta-NGO
        • Post WWI, League of Nations
        • Hosted a Pan-African Congress in 1921, with WEB DuBois
        • Otlet recognized that emerging communication networks were shrinking the effective distances between organizations of all stripes—including nations—and that this technological transformation might serve as the catalyst to global geopolitical change. ...The old transnational alliances were becoming outdated, while an increasingly networked system of transport, postal services, and electric signals were facilitating an unprecedented exchange of people, goods, and ideas—all contributing to the formation of a new worldwide economy.
        • the dream of a global intellectual bureaucracy, providing an architectural infrastructure for combining the output of international organizations...
          • (p 177, paraphrased)
      • Mundaneum
        • "Twenty-five years before the first microchip...fifty years before the first web browser, Paul Otlet had envisioned something very much like today's Internet."
        • Everything in the universe, and everything of man, would be registered at a distance as it was produced. In this way a moving image of the world will be established, a true mirror of his memory. From a distance, everyone will be able to read text, enlarged and limited to the desired subject, projected on an individual screen. In this way, everyone from his armchair will be able to contemplate creation, in whole or in certain parts. (1935)
      • Otlet's Legacy
        • Kind of got bitter and frustrated by two World Wars and bureaucratic inertia
        • But revived recently thanks to one scholar (W Boyd Hayward)
        • Google funded a Mundaneum restoration
      • Comparing the reality of the web to Otlet's vision
        • He would have approved of Google's mission statement:
          • "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."
        • Probably would have been horrified at the chaos and commercialism
        • He was a centralizer at a time when that was kind of the norm
        • Decentralization sort of won (of content at least)
        • Current internet: centralized corporate dominance without Otlet's vision or social responsibility