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.”
By Maria Popova
“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.
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.
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.
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.