The Future of the Web Is 100 Years Old

In 1893, a young Belgian lawyer named Paul Otlet wrote an essay expressing his concern over the rapid proliferation of books, pamphlets, and periodicals. The problem, he argued, should be “alarming to those who are concerned about quality rather than quantity,” and he worried about how anyone would ever make sense of it all. An ardent bibliophile with an entrepreneurial streak, he began working on a solution with his partner, a fellow lawyer named Henri La Fontaine (who would later go on to join the Belgian Senate and win the Nobel Peace Prize): a “Universal Bibliography” (Repertoire bibliographique universel) that would catalog all the world’s published information and make it freely accessible.

.. Otlet’s Mundaneum presented an alternative vision to today’s (nominally) flat and open web by relying on a high degree of bibliographical control. He envisioned a group of trained indexers managing the flow of information in and out of the system, making sure that every incoming piece of data would be properly categorized and synthesized into a coherent body of knowledge.

.. Otlet introduced an important new twist: a set of so-called “auxiliary tables” that allowed indexers to connect one topic to another by using a combination of numeric codes and familiar marks like the equal sign, plus sign, colon, and quotation marks. So, for example, the code 339.5 (410/44) denoted “Trade relations between the United Kingdom and France,” while 311:[622+669](485) meant “Statistics of mining and metallurgy in Sweden.”

.. The lack of intellectual property controls has created massive—and avoidable—disruption for authors, musicians, and other members of the creative trades (although it’s worth noting that Nelson’s Xanadu proposed solutions for intellectual property concerns).

.. Where Otlet and Wells envisioned publicly funded, trans-national organizations, we now have an oligarchy of public corporations.

.. By allowing for the consistent use of ontologies, or standardized definitions of topics, content types, and relationships, the Semantic Web promises to make it easier to combine data from disparate sources.6

.. “Filter on the way out, not on the way in,”

.. “All the distresses and horrors of the present time are fundamentally intellectual,” he wrote. “The world has to pull its mind together.”2

.. In other words, the dream of organizing the world’s information stemmed not from an authoritarian impulse, but from a deeply utopian one. In the United States, though, a very different kind of utopia was being imagined.

.. Bush argued that the human mind operates “by association,” not indexing. And so he proposed a system that would not impose any particular classification system, but would instead allow the user to create “associative trails” that would ultimately be made visible to other users.

.. The essay proved wildly popular, especially after it was reprinted in Life magazine. That version of the essay found its way into the hands of a young Navy officer named Douglas Engelbart, then stationed in the Philippines, who found Bush’s vision so inspiring that he chose to devote much of the rest of his life to realizing it

.. Personal liberation, empowerment, and revolutionary rhetoric—all deeply American traits—shaped the attitudes of many early personal computer hobbyists, and have persisted ever since in the cultural fabric of the modern technology industry.4