We have all heard of the “World Brain”. An idea of the English Author H. G. Wells who was a historian and sociologist, but mostly known for his science fiction novels . In this article I want to put forward two points of critique to Wells´ concept, which I find of importance. I rely on two speeches held by Wells, one in England in 1936 and one in the US in 1937. At this point I have to make clear that the following is based on my personal understanding of these speeches and the concepts and ideas put forward in them. I do not thoroughly account for the historical background of these speeches (which definitely would be very interesting), I do not quote from other critiques or reviews, and I look at the content retrospectively, from my own point of view, with my own multifaceted biases.
The concept of the world brain is most often referred by Wells as the new world encyclopedia. Wells states that the way in which human knowledge is documented and shared is not only outdated but also a reason for many problems that the world faces. He says that there is a lot already known, which is not used, to react effectively to certain events. Wells suggests a sort of encyclopedia in which all human knowledge is saved, constantly revised and made available to everyone.
Scientific vs Common Knowledge and Further Discrimination
Wells has good intentions when stating that a goal of the world encyclopedia is to bridge the gap between scientific and common knowledge. Albeit stressing the great importance of science for all people, he says that a world only governed by scientists will be unsatisfactory. If he were to leave it at this, I would fully agree, but quite contrary to what was said Wells harshly distinguishes between ill-informed, limited men and specialized men.
Contrary to the explicitly mentioned will of Wells to bridge the gap between specialized and common knowledge he decisively distinguishes them and further in his speech exclusively focuses on scientific or specialized knowledge as being worthy of entering the world encyclopedia. I personally do not see how the new institution of the world brain can be anything close to what Wells imagines, if intellectuals don´t acknowledge wisdom and information of other people. Still today education is a good indicator for wealth, but does that mean handymen don´t have valuable knowledge? All scientists will agree that it is hard to study without a roof over your head, so I suggest that the point made by Wells to bridge the gap of specialized and common knowledge be taken seriously and to not seperate people on grounds of what sort of knowledge they possess. An addition to this point is that Wells almost solely refers to men in his speeches. This could be because he means the word “man” and “men” to mean all humans, so men and women, but at one point he does speak of men and women, which calls this theory into question. Disregarding the time Wells lived in, to not acknowldge women properly in the process of knowledge acquisition and documentation is inadequate and sad.
The former group would be almost as uniform in their knowledge and ability as tiles on a roof, the latter would be like pieces from a complicated jig-saw puzzle. The more you got them together the more they would signify. Twelve clerks or a hundred clerks; it wouldn’t mat¬ ter; you would get nothing but dull repetitions and a flat acquiescent suggestible outlook upon life. But every specialized man we added would be adding something to the directive pattern of life.Wells, H. G. (1938). World brain (p. 16). Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
Centralization/Connection by Force
A second critique I have to make refers to a certain part of Wells´ speech in the US. Wells there refers to the process of building this world brain and thereby connecting people and their knowledge by comparing it to the process of the American settlers spreading to the Pacific coast.
They seem to me very much like those forces that drove the United States to the Pacific coast and prevented the break-up of the Union. No doubt, many a heart failed in the covered waggons as they toiled westward, face to face with the red Indian and every sort of lawless violence. Yet the drive persisted and prevailed. The Vigilantes prepared the way for the reign of law.Wells, H. G. (1938). World brain (p. 54). Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
In my opinion this comparison is not well chosen since Indians were killed in the process. This is a fact that Wells does not even mention. The main problem with this comparison is that it implies that the connecting of people through the world brain may be done by force, disregarding losses on the opponents side. Wells does his very best to often state how there will always be people and structures that are scared of change, but he does not mention that the “correct” outcome is inherently connected to the view of the person pursuing it. My critique is mainly that the project of the world brain is meant to produce peace in the long run, according to Wells. But can this actually happen if the process of establishing this world brain is a violent one?
In the middle nineteenth century all Europe thought that the United States must break up into a lawless confusion. The railway, the printing press, saved that. The greater unity conquered because of its immense appeal to common sense in the face of the new conditions. And because it was able to appeal to common sense through these media. The United States could spread gigantically and keep a common mind. And today I believe in many ways, in a variety of fashions and using many weapons and devices, the Vigilantes of World Peace, under the stimulus of still wider necessities, are find¬ ing themselves and each other and getting together to ride.Wells, H. G. (1938). World brain (p. 54-55). Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.
These two points of critique seem severe, but the entirity of Wells´ speeches caries many wise and valid points. My goal was to put forward my main points of criticism (there are more minor ones), but Wells has also put forward valuable input and great ideas, often ahead of his time. Especially when putting the speeches in their historical context, many critiques fade and many sound and great ideas become more valuable.
Wells, H. G. (1938). World brain. Doubleday, Doran & Co., Inc.