The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The World Brain: H.G. Wells’s Prophetic 1930s Vision for the Internet and How to Fix Its Ugliest Present Breaking Point

“The world is a Phoenix. It perishes in flames and even as it dies it is born again.”

The World Brain: H.G. Wells’s Prophetic 1930s Vision for the Internet and How to Fix Its Ugliest Present Breaking Point

“Our minds are all threaded together,” the twenty-one-year-old Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary in the first years of the twentieth century, “& all the world is mind.” A world war, an airplane, and a radio later, nearly half a century before the birth of the true Internet and eight years before Vannevar Bush imagined the personal computer, another far-seeing mind envisioned the revolutionary reality beyond Woolf’s metaphor.

On August 20, 1937 — while the Great Depression was savaging a world on the brink of its second global war — H.G. Wells (September 21, 1866–August 13, 1946) addressed the archivists, librarians, and bibliographers gathered at the World Congress on Universal Documentation in Paris, where the encyclopedia had been invented two centuries earlier.

Wells made a daring proposition: Saving humanity from itself calls for the creation of a new system for “universal organisation and clarification of knowledge and ideas.” He called it a “World Brain” — a “permanent central Encyclopaedic organisation with a local habitat and a world-wide range,” decentralizing and democratizing that supreme antidote to propaganda and manipulation: knowledge.

The World Brain would be readily available to every human being, no matter their income level or the political rule of their society. Only such a World Brain could fully close the abyssal gap between the small percentage of human beings whose education has empowered the full use of their natural human potential — the people now disparagingly termed “elites,” with that fashionable recrimination that falsely equates an intellectual condition (the effects of good education) with a moral condition (the stance of superiority) — and the vast global majority who have been denied such honing of their natural gifts under the industrialism-warped landscape of material possibility. Wells told his audience:

It is dawning upon us, we lay observers, that this [is] the beginning of a world brain, a common world brain… a sort of cerebrum for humanity, a cerebral cortex which (when it is fully developed) will constitute a memory and a perception of current reality for the entire human race.

Embroidery by Debbie Millman

He even envisioned the cloud:

In these days of destruction, violence and general insecurity, it is comforting to think that the brain of mankind, the race brain, can exist in numerous replicas throughout the world.

But Wells — one of the keenest and most nuance-capable intellects of his time, and a model for ours — was no hollow techno-utopian. He saw this not just as a technological network of information, but “a process of mental organisation throughout the world.” He recognized that the single decisive factor in making such a World Brain not only possible but salutary for humanity rather than dangerous was the cultivation of what he called the “Competent Receiver” — the person who engages with the output of the World Brain with thoughtfulness, sensitivity, and critical thinking. (Isn’t “Competent Receiver” an infinitely lovelier and more generous term for the “user” Silicon Valley has perpetrated on our language and our consciousness?)

Wells continued developing these ideas in various papers and lectures, eventually publishing them in the slender 1938 gem World Brain (public library). In a sentiment that makes the modern heart sigh with recognition, he writes in the preface:

The human individual is born now to live in a society for which his fundamental instincts are altogether inadequate… in a world of fluctuating and generally expanding communities and ranges of reaction.

One of Edward Gorey’s 1960 illustrations for Wells’s The War of the Worlds

To be made “adequate,” we must be educated into our social roles, rendering our social selves the “manufactured product” of our natural selves that remain at the nucleus of our being. But for the World Brain to work, Wells cautions, we must also be educated into being Competent Receivers, which would require a deliberate transcendence of our reflexive reactions. In a passage of extraordinary prophecy against the web-powered social reality of the 2020s, he writes:

Man* reflects before he acts, but not very much; he is still by nature intellectually impatient. No sooner does he apprehend, in whole or in part, the need of a new world, than, without further plans or estimates, he gets into a state of passionate aggressiveness and suspicion and sets about trying to change the present order… with anything that comes handy, violently, disastrously, making the discordances worse instead of better, and quarrelling bitterly with any one who is not in complete accordance with his particular spasmodic conception of the change needful. He is unable to realise that when the time comes I to act, that also is the time to think fast and hard. He will not think enough.

There has been, therefore, an enormous waste of human mental, moral and physical resources in premature revolutionary thrusts, ill-planned, dogmatic, essentially unscientific reconstructions and restorations of the social order, during the past hundred years. This was the inevitable first result of the discrediting of those old and superseded mental adaptations which were embodied in the institutions and education of the past. They discredited themselves and left the world full of problems.

One of Edward Gorey’s 1960 illustrations for Wells’s The War of the Worlds

Such hasty destructiveness, Wells acknowledges, is the first and most instinctual response to the recognition that change is needed. But real change — lasting change, change that reconstitutes society rather than merely dismantling the old order and leaving the world ashambles, the kind of change Octavia Butler wrote about — requires something else entirely, or else all we end up with are “psychological storms which give gangster dictators their opportunities.” He writes:

It is becoming apparent that the real clue to that reconciliation of freedom and sustained initiative with the more elaborate social organisation which is being demanded from us, lies in raising and unifying, and so implementing and making more effective, the general intelligence services of the world.

Only such a shift, Wells argues, would ensure “a reconditioned and more powerful Public Opinion,” which is humanity’s most robust defense against those “gangster dictators.” (Mere months after Wells published this vision far ahead of its time, one such dictator plunged humanity into its darkest hour.) He envisions the World Brain as the path to freedom, peace, and a harmonious humanity:

A World Brain, operating by an enhanced educational system through the whole body of mankind… will replace our multitude of uncoordinated ganglia, our powerless miscellany of universities, research institutions, literatures with a purpose, national educational systems and the like; in that and in that alone, it is maintained, is there any clear hope of a really Competent Receiver for world affairs, any hope of an adequate directive control of the present destructive drift of world affairs. We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself. To work out a way to that World Brain organisation is therefore our primary need in this age of imperative construction.

It is an immense undertaking but not an impossible undertaking… There are favourable conditions for it, encouraging precedents and a plainly evident need.

Crowning his vision for the World Brain is a sentiment both buoyant and uncompromising:

The world is a Phoenix. It perishes in flames and even as it dies it is born again. This synthesis of knowledge is the necessary beginning to the new world.

BP

Nathaniel Hawthorne on How to Look and Really See

“The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.”

“One can’t write directly about the soul,” Virginia Woolf wrote. “Looked at, it vanishes.” This is true of any soul — our own, that of another, that of the world. It vanishes because whenever we look, we see not as reality is but as we are. We see the rest of nature — including each other — through eyes gauzed with preconception, our distracted vision blurred by the thousand thoughts that come alive before the mind’s eye at any given moment, more vivid than the living reality before us.

A lovely recipe for how to see the world more clearly comes from Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 4, 1804–May 19, 1864) — perhaps a lesser novelist than Woolf, but a greater one than Melville in Melville’s own estimation, lovesick as he was, and a far greater observer of nature in his novels than all the journaling Transcendentalists combined. When Thoreau looked at nature, he saw only metaphor and parable; when Hawthorne looked, he saw nature on its own terms, letting it mirror back the fractal of itself that is human nature as the light of unfiltered awareness fell on it. In that respect, he was more a Buddhist than a Transcendentalist, more a scientist than a novelist, and always a poet of reality.

Nathaniel Hawthorne

In the high summer of 1851 — a year after The Scarlet Letter interrupted Hawthorne’s long obscurity to catapult the middle-aged author into celebrity — he took his five-year-old son Julian to the lake near the little red shanty they had rented in the Berkshires. Sitting at the water’s edge, Hawthorne wrote in a journal entry later included in Julian’s tender two-volume biography of his parents, Nathaniel Hawthorne and His Wife (public library | public domain):

The best way to get a vivid impression and feeling of a landscape, is to sit down before it and read, or become otherwise absorbed in thought; for then, when your eyes happen to be attracted to the landscape, you seem to catch Nature unawares, and see her before she has time to change her aspect. The effect lasts but for a single instant, and passes away almost as soon as you are conscious of it; but it is real, for that moment. It is as if you could overhear and understand what the trees are whispering to one another; as if you caught a glimpse of a face unveiled, which veils itself from every willful glance. The mystery is revealed, and after a breath or two, becomes just as great a mystery as before.

Nebular by Maria Popova. (Available as a print, benefitting The Nature Conservancy)

Complement with James Baldwin on the revelation that taught him to truly see and Georgia O’Keeffe on the art of seeing, then revisit Hawthorne on the edges of consciousness and his stirring meditation on life, death, and what fills the interlude with meaning, composed while watching his young daughter interact with his dying mother.

BP

A Language for the Exhilaration of Being Alive: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Music and the Universe

“Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.”

A Language for the Exhilaration of Being Alive: The Poetic Physicist Alan Lightman on Music and the Universe

“Matter delights in music, and became Bach,” Ronald Johnson wrote in his stunning 1980 prose poem about music and the mind. This may be why music so moves and rearranges and harmonizes us, why in it we become most fully ourselves — “atoms with consciousness,” axons with feeling. When music courses through us, we are reminded that the mind and the body are one, and that the body — like music, like feeling, like the universe itself — is made of matter and time. It may even be that music is the language of time, mathematics its alphabet; that Margaret Fuller was right when she insisted two centuries ago that “all truth is comprised in music and mathematics”; that, as the cosmologist and jazz saxophonist Stephon Alexander observed in our own century, “it is less about music being scientific and more about the universe being musical.”

That is what the poetic physicist Alan Lightman explores with great subtlety and splendor throughout his conceptual masterpiece Mr g: A Novel About the Creation (public library), which reads like one long prose poem and which also gave us the transcendent science of what actually happens when you die.

Composition 8 by Wassily Kandinsky, 1920s, inspired by the artist’s experience of listening to a symphony. (Available as a print.)

Through his protagonist — the young creator Mr. g, bored and unsure of himself (“unlimited possibilities bring unlimited indecision”) as he spins a baby universe out of the Void while his aunt and uncle watch on with approving, critical, and sage pronouncements — Alan envisions the realities, as theorized by our current science, of how the universe began, punctuating them with fundaments of our humanity, none more elemental than the soul-resonance of music:

Then there was music. The Void had always vibrated with the music of my thoughts, but before the existence of time the totality of sounds occurred simultaneously, as if a thousand thousand notes were played all at once. Now we could hear one note following another, cascades of sound, arpeggios and glissades. We could hear melodies. We could hear rhythms and metrical phrases gathering up time in lovely folds of sound. Duples and triples and offbeat syncopations. As we moved through the Void [we] were transfixed by the most exquisite sounds, the tender and melodic and rapturous oscillations of the Void.

As Mr. g proceeds with his rapturous experiment, most of the music he makes follows a Pythagorean scale, because “chords based on these scales were pleasing to hear,” but he also tinkers with asymmetrical and nonharmonic ratios, which “also produced beautiful music as long as two different notes were not sounded together.” (These, of course, are allusions to the Western and non-Western music traditions.) He writes:

In every place and in every moment, we were wrapped and engulfed in music. At times, the music poured forth in fierce heaving swells. At other times, it advanced in the softest little steps, delicate as a fleeting veil in the Void. Music clung to our beings as parcels of emptiness had in the past. Music went inside us. I had created music, but now music created; it lifted and remade and formed a completeness of being.

One of William Blake’s paintings for The Book of Job, 1806. (Available as a print.)

In consonance with philosopher Susanne Langer’s lovely formulation of music as “our myth of the inner life,” he adds:

Nowhere is the joy of existence so apparent as in music… Intelligent life-forms have created a multitude of sounds that express their exhilaration at being alive.

At the 2022 Universe in Verse, I invited Alan — a passionate pianist himself — to reflect on the personal and universal power of music and its abiding relationship to physics before reading an excerpt from Robert Johnson’s epic poem:

When I sit down at the piano, I enter two different realms: one conscious and one unconscious. The conscious realm is one in which I think about the notes I’m going to play, and the timing and the rhythm and the intensity; and the unconscious is when I just let go and float with the sound. Music is an expression both of the orderly discipline of science and the unfettered flight of the human spirit.

Complement with violinist Natalie Hodges on the poetic science of feeling in sound and composer Caroline Shaw’s transcendent musical inspiriting of classic poetry, then revisit Alan Lightman on time and the antidote to our existential anxiety.

BP

From Living Tree Bridges to AI Systems: A Design Catalogue of Optimism and Resilience for a More Livable Future

“Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change.”

From Living Tree Bridges to AI Systems: A Design Catalogue of Optimism and Resilience for a More Livable Future

In the summer of 1948, Black Mountain College informed a class of students that the star architect whose class they had signed up to take had cancelled; he was to be replaced by a Harvard dropout who had never taught before.

What neither the students nor the college knew is that Buckminster Fuller was lucky to be alive at all. A quarter century earlier, when his business went into bankruptcy and his four-year-old daughter died of meningitis, he had almost taken his own life, surviving the hollowing meaninglessness only by finding meaning in a single devotion: to benefit humanity. He would come to think of himself as “Astronaut of Spaceship Earth”; the world could come to think of him as the Leonardo da Vinci of the twentieth century.

Buckminster Fuller at his Black Mountain College studio.

Amid the wreckage of the WWII aftermath, the geodesic dome he designed with his Black Mountain students provided shelter and self-sufficiency to people who had lost everything; it also provided a model for how design — that golden mean of passionate imagination and practical ingenuity — can transform lives by broadening the landscape of the possible, even amid the most impossible of circumstances.

Generations and world-crises later, Paola Antonelli and Alice Rawsthorn celebrate this spirit in Design Emergency: Building a Better Future (public library) — a labor of love that began as an Instagram feed of life-allaying solutions during the pandemic and bloomed into an atemporal celebration of human optimism, ingenuity, and passion at their most practical and most buoyant.

The Makoko Floating School in Nigeria — a prototype floating structure by the architecture firm NLÉ, built to serve the historic Lagos lagoon water community.

With the clarity that only a survivor’s hindsight confers upon history, it is easy to see how COVID-19 exposed ecological and economic collapse, social unrest over injustice and inequality — thorns in humanity’s safety and sanity predating the pandemic, many by centuries, but suddenly rendered sharper, larger, and more imminent by the magnifying lens of mortality and uncertainty. These projects — ranging from a simple hygiene PSA that helped New Zealand attain the lowest pandemic death rate in the world to the Great Green Wall belting Africa with biodiversity to artificial intelligence amending the blind spots of human bias to — bring a deeper level of clarity about what the future asks of us.

Thoughtfully curated to constellate a larger whole, they broaden the narrow mainstream understanding of design from handsome overpriced objects to systems, practices, ways of seeing, and life-magnifying solutions to the problem of living, often dreamt up and made real by people who do not think of themselves as designers. Punctuating them are interviews with some of these visionaries — architects and engineers, artists and astrophysicists — many of whom never anticipated to make the miniature revolutions they made.

Anatomy of an AI System by artist and investigative artificial intelligence cartographer Kate Crawford, decoding the ecosystem of an Amazon Echo.

Reflecting on how the onset of the pandemic illuminated the role of design as a life-force of resilience, Paola writes in her opening essay:

Life as most knew it changed overnight, and as is the case when change happens, design went into overdrive to reconceive all spheres of life. Any emergency is also a design emergency.

[…]

Design is the enzyme that helps people face and metabolize change, adapt to circumstances, overcome hardships, and leap beyond the crisis and forward toward a better future, both at the individual and at the collective level.

Emerging from the selections is a real-life analogue to David Byrne’s dreamy illustrated vision for the future — a catalogue of optimism and resilience, bridging the ecological and the economic, the futuristic and the historical, the social and the scientific.

Meghalaya’s living root bridges, known as iing kieng jri.

One of the loveliest examples comes from one of the wettest places on Earth and one of the most ancient cultures — the Jaintia Hills of the Meghalaya region of Northern India, where during the monsoon season severe rains transform the hills into hunchback islands rising from the flood.

To traverse this Venice of the rainforest, generations of local Khasi people have developed a system of astonishing living bridges, made by training the aerial roots of the native rubber fig tree (Ficus elastica) along the trunk of a betel nut palm tree (Areca catechu) laid across the ravine.

The living bridges are a valiant antidote to instant gratification: It takes a decade of tending before a bridge can support human weight at all. But within a generation, by a slow-blooming miracle of growth, gravity, and devotion, each bridge can carry as many as fifty people at once. With every passing year, with every new generation trained in training the trees, the bridge grows stronger and stronger, its lifespan stretching into centuries, far outliving the first human hands that twined the first rubber fig roots.

Satellite image of a stretch of the Great Green Wall of Africa running through Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, depicting the stark contrast between the revitalized vegetation and the desertification surrounding it.

In another example from the long history of design solutions to environmental challenges and emergencies, Alice Rawsthorn points to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Northeast Paris — a onetime dump and quarry atop a “bald mountain,” where the bodies of criminals were publicly displayed after execution and where the soil turned so toxic that no plant could survive.

Today — after thousands of workers toiled for two years in the 1860 to remove the rubble and reconstruct the landscape by digging out a five-acre lake around the hill, with a special railway built to transport new topsoil to the site — the park is a thriving wilderness lush with thousands of trees, grasses, and flowering plants swarmed by birds and pollinators, a haven beloved by locals as the “people’s park.”

Video still from a film by Italian investigative designer duo Andrea Trimarchi and Simone Farresin for the research project and exhibition Cambio at the Serpentine in London in 2020, created by manipulating a LiDAR scan of an oak forest in Virginia — a new technology the timber industry is using to be able to log trees selectively.

Design Emergency: Building a Better Future is one of those invaluable records of what is best and brightest in us — the kind that restores your faith in humanity and rekindles your fiercest devotion to a more possible future. For a kindred counterpart from a different realm of resilience, complement it with poet Ross Gay’s life-magnifying catalogue of delights.

BP

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