One Year On

A year is a long time.

On the 16th of December last year, I was on Facebook. Nothing unusual about this (I spent and indeed, to a slightly lesser extent, still spend rather too much time with that little blue f in the top corner of my screen), especially given that it was the run up to Christmas and I was bored, and neither was the precise content of the bit of Facebook I was looking at- an argument. Such things are common in the weird world of social networking, although they surely shouldn’t be, and this was just another such time. Three or four people were posting long, eloquent, semi-researched and furiously defended messages over some point of ethics, politics or internet piracy, I know not which (it was probably one of those anyway, since that’s what most of them seem to be about among my friends list). Unfortunately, one of those people was me, and I was losing. Well, I say losing; I don’t think anybody could be said to be winning, but I was getting angry and upset all the same, made worse by the realisation that what I was doing was a COMPLETE WASTE OF TIME. I am not in any position whereby my Views are going to have a massive impact on the lives of everyone else, nobody wants to hear what they are, and there was no way in hell that I was going to convince anyone that my opinion was more ‘right’ than their strongly-held conviction- all I and my fellow arguees were achieving was getting very, very angry at one another, actively making us all more miserable. We could pretend that we were debating an important issue, but in reality were just another group of people screaming at one another via the interwebs.

A little under a week later, the night after the winter solstice (22nd of December, which you should notice was exactly 366 days ago), I was again to be found watching an argument unfold on Facebook. Thankfully this time I was not participating, merely looking on with horror as another group of four or five people made their evening miserable by pretending they could convince others that they were ‘wrong’. The provocativeness of the original post, spouting one set of Views as gospel truth over the web, the self-righteousness of the responses and the steadily increasing vitriol of the resulting argument, all struck me as a terrible waste of some wonderful brains. Those participating I knew to be good people, smart people, capable of using their brains for, if not betterment of the world around them, then perhaps a degree of self-betterment or at the very least something that was not making the world a more unhappy place. The moment was not a happy one.

However, one of the benefits of not competing in such an argument is that I didn’t have to be reminded of it or spend much time watching it unfold, so I turned back to my news feed and began scrolling down. As I did so, I came to another friend, putting a link up to his blog. This was a recent experiment for him, only a few posts old at the time, and he self-publicised it religiously every time a post went up. He has since discontinued his blogging adventures, to my disappointment, but they made fun reading whilst they lasted; short (mostly less than 300 words) and covering a wide range of random topics. He wasn’t afraid to just be himself online, and wasn’t concerned about being definitively right; if he offered an opinion, it was just something he thought, no more & no less, and there was no sense that it was ever combative. Certainly it was never the point of any post he made; each was just something he’d encountered in the real world or online that he felt would be relatively cool and interesting to comment on. His description described his posts as ‘musings’, and that was the right word for them; harmless, fun and nice. They made the internet and world in general, in some tiny little way, a nicer place to explore.

So, I read through his post. I smirked a little, smiled and closed the tab, returning once more to Facebook and the other distractions & delights the net had to offer. After about an hour or so, my thoughts once again turned to the argument, and I rashly flicked over to look at how it was progressing. It had got to over 100 comments and, as these things do, was gradually wandering off-topic to a more fundamental, but no less depressing, point of disagreement. I was once again filled with a sense that these people were wasting their lives, but this time my thoughts were both more decisive and introspective. I thought about myself; listless, counting down the last few empty days before Christmas, looking at the occasional video or blog, not doing much with myself. My schedule was relatively free, I had a lot of spare time, but I was wasting it. I thought of all the weird and wonderful thoughts that flew across my brain, all the ideas that would spring and fountain of their own accord, all of the things that I thought were interesting, amazing or just downright wonderful about our little mental, spinning ball of rock and water and its strange, pink, fleshy inhabitants that I never got to share. Worse, I never got to put them down anywhere, so after time all these thoughts would die in some forgotten corner of my brain, and the potential they had to remind me of themselves was lost. Once again, I was struck by a sense of waste, but also of resolve; I could try to remedy this situation. So, I opened up WordPress, I filled out a few boxes, and I had my own little blog. My fingers hovered over the keyboard, before falling to the keys. I began to write a little introduction to myself.

Today, the role of my little corner of the interwebs has changed somewhat. Once, I would post poetry, lists, depressed trains of thought and last year’s ’round robin letter of Planet Earth’, which I still regard as one of the best concepts I ever put onto the net (although I don’t think I’ll do one this year- not as much major stuff has hit the news). Somewhere along the line, I realised that essays were more my kind of thing, so I’ve (mainly) stuck to them since; I enjoy the occasional foray into something else, but I find that I can’t produce as much regular stuff this was as otherwise. In any case, the essays have been good for me; I can type, research and get work done so much faster now, and it has paid dividends to my work rate and analytical ability in other fields. I have also found that in my efforts to add evidence to my comments, I end up doing a surprising amount of research that turns an exercise in writing down what I know into one of increasing the kind of stuff I know, learning all sorts of new and random stuff to pack into my brain. I have also violated my own rules about giving my Views on a couple of occasions (although I would hope that I haven’t been too obnoxious about it when I have), but broadly speaking the role of my blog has stayed true to those goals stated in my very first post; to be a place free from rants, to be somewhere to have a bit of a laugh and to be somewhere to rescue unwary travellers dredging the backwaters of the internet who might like what they’ve stumbled upon. But, really, this little blog is like a diary for me; a place that I don’t publicise on my Facebook feed, that I link to only rarely, and that I keep going because I find it comforting. It’s a place where there’s nobody to judge me, a place to house my mind and extend my memory. It’s stressful organising my posting time and coming up with ideas, but whilst blogging, the rest of the world can wait for a bit. It’s a calming place, a nice place, and over the last year it has changed me.

A year is a long time.

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The Encyclopaedia Webbanica

Once again, today’s post will begin with a story- this time, one about a place that was envisaged over a hundred years ago. It was called the Mundaneum.

The Mundaneum today is a tiny museum in the city of Mons, Belgium, which opened in its current form in 1998. It is a far cry from the original, first conceptualised by Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri la Fontaine and fellow lawyer and pioneer Paul Otlet in 1895. The two men, Otlet in particular, had a vision- to create a place where every single piece of knowledge in the world was housed. Absolutely all of it.

Even in the 19th century, when the breadth of scientific knowledge was a million times smaller than it is today (a 19th century version of New Scientist would be publishable about once a year), this was a huge undertaking, this was a truly gigantic undertaking from a practical perspective. Not only did Otlet and la Fontaine attempt to collect a copy of just about every book ever written in search of information, but went further than any conventional library of the time by also looking through pamphlets, photographs, magazines, and posters in search of data. The entire thing was stored on small 3×5 index cards and kept in a carefully organised and detailed system of files, and this paper database eventually grew to contain over 12 million entries. People would send letters or telegraphs to the government-funded Mundaneum (the name referencing to the French monde, meaning world, rather than mundane as in boring), who in turn would have their staff search through their files in order to give a response to just about any question that could be asked.

However, the most interesting thing of all about Otlet’s operation, quite apart from the sheer conceptual genius of a man who was light-years ahead of his time, was his response to the problems posed when the enterprise got too big for its boots. After a while, the sheer volume of information and, more importantly, paper, meant that the filing system was getting too big to be practical for the real world. Otlet realised that this was not a problem that could ever be resolved by more space or manpower- the problem lay in the use of paper. And this was where Otlet pulled his masterstroke of foresight.

Otlet envisaged a version of the Mundaneum where the whole paper and telegraph business would be unnecessary- instead, he foresaw a “mechanical, collective brain”, through which people of the world could access all the information the world had to offer stored within it via a system of “electric microscopes”. Not only that, but he envisaged the potential for these ‘microscopes’ to connect to one another, and letting people “participate, applaud, give ovations, [or] sing in the chorus”. Basically, a pre-war Belgian lawyer predicted the internet (and, in the latter statement, social networking too).

Otlet has never been included in the pantheon of web pioneers- he died in 1944 after his beloved Mundaneum had been occupied and used to house a Nazi art collection, and his vision of the web as more of an information storage tool for nerdy types is hardly what we have today. But, to me, his vision of a web as a hub for sharing information and a man-made font of all knowledge is envisaged, at least in part, by one huge and desperately appealing corner of the web today: Wikipedia.

If you take a step back and look at Wikipedia as a whole, its enormous success and popularity can be quite hard to understand. Beginning from a practical perspective, it is a notoriously difficult site to work with- whilst accessing the information is very user-friendly, the editing process can be hideously confusing and difficult, especially for the not very computer-literate (seriously, try it). My own personal attempts at article-editing have almost always resulted in failure, bar some very small changes and additions to existing text (where I don’t have to deal with the formatting). This difficulty in formatting is a large contributor to another issue- Wikipedia articles are incredibly text-heavy, usually with only a few pictures and captions, which would be a major turn-off in a magazine or book. The very concept of an encyclopaedia edited and made by the masses, rather than a select team of experts, also (initially) seems incredibly foolhardy. Literally anyone can type in just about anything they want, leaving the site incredibly prone to either vandalism or accidental misdirection (see xkcd.com/978/ for Randall Munroe’s take on how it can get things wrong). The site has come under heavy criticism over the years for this fact, particularly on its pages about people (Dan Carter, the New Zealand fly-half, has apparently considered taking up stamp collecting, after hundreds of fans have sent him stamps based on a Wikipedia entry stating that he was a philatelist), and just letting normal people edit it also leaves bias prone to creep in, despite the best efforts of Wikipedia’s team of writers and editors (personally, I think that the site keeps its editing software deliberately difficult to use to minimise the amount of people who can use it easily and so try to minimise this problem).

But, all that aside… Wikipedia is truly wonderful- it epitomises all that is good about the web. It is a free to use service, run by a not-for-profit organisation that is devoid of advertising and is funded solely by the people of the web whom it serves. It is the font of all knowledge to an entire generation of students and schoolchildren, and is the number one place to go for anyone looking for an answer about anything- or who’s just interested in something and would like to learn more. It is built on the principles of everyone sharing and contributing- even flaws or areas lacking citation are denoted by casual users if they slip up past the editors the first time around. It’s success is built upon its size, both big and small- the sheer quantity of articles (there are now almost four million, most of which are a bit bigger than would have fitted on one of Otlet’s index cards), means that it can be relied upon for just about any query (and will be at the top of 80% of my Google searches), but its small server space, and staff size (less than 50,000, most of whom are volunteers- the Wikimedia foundation employs less than 150 people) keeps running costs low and allows it to keep on functioning despite its user-sourced funding model. Wikipedia is currently the 6th (ish) most visited website in the world, with 12 billion page views a month. And all this from an entirely not-for-profit organisation designed to let people know facts.

Nowadays, the Mundaneum is a small museum, a monument to a noble but ultimately flawed experiment. It original offices in Brussels were left empty, gathering dust after the war until a graduate student discovered it and eventually provoked enough interest to move the old collection to Mons, where it currently resides as a shadow of its former glory. But its spirit lives on in the collective brain that its founder envisaged. God bless you, Wikipedia- long may you continue.