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.

Advertisements

Rule Brittania

As I have mentioned a few times over the course of this blog, I am British (I prefer not to say English unless I’m talking about sport. Not sure why, exactly). The British as a race have a long list of achievements, giant-scale cock-ups and things we like to brush under the carpet (see the Crimean War for all three of those things), and since we spent most of the 17th-19th century either fighting over or controlling fairly massive swathes of the earth, the essence of Britishness has managed to make itself known in the psyche of just about every nation on Earth. Or, to put it another way, people have tons of stereotypes about the Brits, but not quite so many about, say, the Lithuanians (my apologies to any Lithuanians who end up reading this, but the British national psyche at least isn’t that good at distinguishing you from the rest of Eastern Europe).

British national stereotypes are a mixed bunch. We have the ‘ye olde’ stereotypical Brit- a top-hatted, tea drinking cricketer for whom the word ‘quaint’ was invented and who would never speak out of turn to anybody. Then there is the colonial stereotype- the old-fashioned, borderline-racist yet inherently capable silver-moustached ‘old boy’ living in a big house somewhere in the tropics with a few servants. He puts a lot of cash into the local public school down the road, paying for the cricket facilities. Or something. And then we have the hideously polite- just as obsessed about manners as his ‘ye olde’ cousin, but this time in a very subservient, almost Canadian, manner (I should clarify that I get this particular Canadian stereotype from the internet, since the only Canadians I know all seem… actually, I’ll get back to you on a generalistic stereotype)

However, modern Britain is, of course, not really like this- we are a very modern, incredibly diverse culture (despite David Cameron’s insistence that “multiculturalism has failed”- not one of his better lines) with a surprising geographical diversity too, for such a small country. So, since I am not really in the mood for anything particularly heavy today, I thought that this would be a good time to inform the internet as to a few new British stereotypes for you, just to bring you up to date.

1) The Chav
Used to be that inner-city Londoners all got classed as Cockneys- nowadays we have chavs instead. The chav in his natural state is a pack animal, rarely seen without company, and vulnerable when alone. His is the main market for bad rap music, oversized baseball caps and hoodies two sizes too big for them. They are a notoriously hard to become assimilated with, partly due to the natural verbal aggression of the pack, but also due to their strange tongue- officially known as London Street English (LSE), this bizarre dialect, calling from influences ranging from Vietnamese to Arabic, has now spread across large tracts of southern England, where it is generally confined to council estate, and has more recently been simply dubbed ‘Chav’. Despite a reputation for drugs, violence and vandalism, they are not to be feared by the confident, especially if numbers lie in one’s favour.

2) The West Country
The farming stereotype- round-cheeked, stick-bearing and (to complete the look) with a length of straw poking out of the mouth. Their dialect (a rather bumptious, heavily accented tongue where many a syllable may be lost beneath an ‘Aarrr’) can be no less strange and confusing than LSE, and despite being typically associated with the area west of Bristol (excluding, of course, Wales), is also to be found in East Anglia. Since we have progressed from the days of needing an army of bored young men to till the fields, leaving us to use combine harvesters and such instead, this tends to be a reasonably well-off group- there are no longer starving farmhands, only really farm owners & family. They tend to drive Land Rovers, and view science with roughly the same suspicion as an oncoming bush fire.

3) The Gap Yah…
The modern public schoolboy. Eton being a touch old-fashioned nowadays, the stereotype will now come from Harrow or Stowe (for whatever reason). Typically long of face, short of hair and severely lacking in both age and experience, these come in two subtly different classes. There is the overbearer- the one whose intense access to the very best that Daddy’s money can buy has left them better than everybody else at practically everything they care to mention, and will point this out to you at every opportunity. These may be recognised by the incessant and constantly nagging desire to break their face. The second is the wannabe- the kid who got bullied at Whitgift, who isn’t actually that good at anything but is still richer than you and likes you to know it. They are characterised by always pretending to be of the overbearer class, and endeavouring to be as competent as them, but always cocking up. Interestingly, failure provides the main distinction between the two classes- whilst a wannabe will just act cool and pretend that you cheated them, an overbearer will simply cut out all the timewasting and begin the vitriolic hatred then and there. Both classes are likely to drink heavily (of proper drinks of course- stuff like cider is for plebs and Muggles), travel widel, and hopefully meet their match one of these days soon.

That list was not what you’d call exhaustive, but it’s reasonably accurate from what I’ve experienced. Plus, it was quite nice and relaxing for me.

(If I have in any way offended you or the stereotype you represent over the course of this post, then please feel free to ignore it and laugh at the other ones instead)