A Web of Influence

The myth of the lone genius ranks as one of the persistent myths in Western culture. For all of Otlet’s personal brilliance, his ideas took shape at a particular place and time, often in close collaboration with his contemporaries. Otlet’s work provides a window into a broader – and largely overlooked – lineage of twentieth century thinking about the possibilities of a networked world.

H.G. Wells, the English science fiction writer and social activist, dreamed of building a World Brain; Emanuel Goldberg, a brilliant inventor of Russian Jewish ancestry, designed a fully functional mechanical search engine in 1930s Germany before fleeing the Nazis; Scotland’s Patrick Geddes and Austria’s Otto Neurath both explored new kinds of highly designed, propagandistic museum exhibits designed to foster social change; Germany’s Wilhelm Ostwald, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist, aspired to build a vast new “brain of humanity”; the eccentric sculptor Hendrik Andersen and the famed architect Le Corbusier both worked with Otlet on the design of a World City to house a new, one-world government with a networked information repository at its epicenter.

Their work preceded – and prefigured – the work of later Anglo-American innovators like Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart, Andy van Dam, Ted Nelson, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. Yet the contributions of these European pioneers have been largely ignored in the conventional history of the Internet, which has focused almost exclusively on the contributions of post-WWII Anglo-American inventors. The work of Otlet and his contemporaries invites us to broaden our horizons beyond the realm of computer science.