If collective intelligence enhances the chance of survival, then we need as much of it as possible…
The Web (called at times The World-Wide Web, WWW, W3, cyberspace, and the information superhighway) is the most recent in a series of communications revolutions. Stretching back through television, radio, telephone (and its precursor the telegraph), newspapers, the printing press, the invention of writing, and the evolution of human speech, these innovations revolutionized society, and made us better informed and, hopefully, smarter.
Genesis of the Web. More than its precursor communications revolutions, the Web brings to fruition a long-standing dream of information connectedness. According to Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee et al. in 1994, “The Word-Wide Web (W3) was developed to be a pool of human knowledge”. The Web has “overflowed this original goal to become a vast sea” (as put by Montfort and Wardrip-Fruin). Sir Tim was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2004 in recognition. But the dream has a storied history predating Berners-Lee, who created the Web at CERN, the Swiss birthplace not only of the Web but also of the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator (“atom smasher”).
Earlier visionaries foresaw the potential for general, customized access to the vastness of the world’s information. In the 1960s Doug Engelbart built the first hypertext system, in which text contains links to other texts — the hyperlink idea that makes the Web possible. As for clicking those links? Well, Engelbart also invented the mouse! On his first day back to work after becoming engaged in 1950 he had an initial epiphany in which he visualized his career as a “long, long hallway, …almost featureless.” Over a period of months he pondered this apparently unnerving realization until his final epiphany: “What if I could contribute something significant to how humanity could cope better with complex sorts of problems? … BANGO!” But how? Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 Atlantic Monthly article “As we may think” became a key piece in the solution to that puzzle. Engelbart got to work and never stopped.
Working independently of Engelbart, in 1965 Ted Nelson, then a professor at Vassar College in New York state, coined the term hypertext (with a hyphen — “hyper-text”). A colorful character, Nelson is reputed to have also coined the term “teledildonics.” His Xanadu project embodied his universe of documents, or “docuverse” vision, in which “The World Wide Web is what we were trying to prevent”. Yet his ideas are present in the Web, for example the concept of “transclusion,” which describes the “hot-linking” of images into html format text pages. As with Engelbart, Nelson was deeply influenced by Vannevar Bush’s article “As we may think,” which he reprinted in his own book on his ideas, “Literary Machines.”
Often credited as the inspiration for the developments leading to the Web by those unaware of Paul Otlet’s work (see below) is a device Vannevar Bush conceived in his “As we may think” article. (A descendant of sea captains, Bush also wrote “It is earlier than we think”.) He called this hypothetical device the memex. (‘Memex’ is often described as either from MEMory and indEX, or MEMory and EXtender though in the article itself Bush states, “It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, ‘memex’ will do.”) A memex would serve as a repository for all of the written materials including books, notes, and other things that one might accumulate over a lifetime, stored on microfilm (to save space — no flash memory, DVDs, etc. in those days!). Levers and screens would enable one to easily find, skim, and read anything stored in the memex. Bush wrote, “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them.” Sound like Wikipedia? A memex will probably never be built and, born in 1890, he died in 1974, too soon to use Wikipedia (or even its forerunner Webopedia, once pioneering but now just a stodgy, out-of-date also-ran).
The milieu that inspired the “associative trails” of hypertext (and the Web’s hypermedia, which generalizes hypertext with links to and from images and other media besides just text) was the birth of the general-purpose (technically, “Turing complete”) electronic computer: the first was nicknamed “Baby.” More soberly called the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (SSEM), it went live in June, 1948. But excitement had been building. Other general purpose computers already existed. The famed ENIAC appeared in 1945, but was not fully electronic (it was programmed by flipping switches and connecting wires). The Z3 ran in 1941 (it was not electronic at all, relying on electrically driven mechanical parts). The storied Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage in the preceding century was general purpose yet fully mechanical. Its construction was sadly never completed due to lack of funds, yet programs were nevertheless written for it in 1842–3 by Ada Lovelace (more precisely, Lady Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace), who thus became recognized as the first computer programmer.
Yet before Berners-Lee, before Engelbart, before Nelson, before Bush and the computer revolution ‘40s, there was Paul Otlet. Born in 1868 in Brussels, Belgium, to a wealthy family, his mother died when he was three. Despite this hardship he ultimately developed many of the ideas that make the Web a unique and indispensible part of the modern world — but using paper cards instead of computers. His favored unit of knowledge was a passage short enough to be stored on a a single 3×5 index card. His dream became to put the world’s knowledge onto these cards and use the resultant card collection as a tool for the betterment of humankind. As he wrote in 1892, he envisioned a “systematic and very detailed synoptic outline of knowledge” which “would have enormous advantages” such as, for example, “the creation of a kind of artificial brain by means of cards”. Starting in 1895 this was implemented as the Universal Bibliographic Repertory, soon answering questions by mail by sending copies of cards for a fee. Ultimately a collection of over 15 million such cards were housed in what was named the “Mundaneum” in Brussels. Closed in 1934, its remnants still exist (see http://www.mundaneum.be/).
From wikipedia to wikiwikipedia. The Web is a giant, quality-uncontrolled, disorganized mass of information, but wikipedia is just the opposite — organized, quality-checked, and much smaller (though large for a reference work). It is no surprise therefore that wikipedia is one of the best-known and important sites on the Web. Together, they complement one another and vindicate the dreams of visionaries from Paul Otlet on.
But wikipedia can make a quantum leap: it can become wikiwikipedia. Wikiwikipedia is designed to recognize and build on the basic fact that wikipedia users often seek information in context. For example, most readers of the wikipedia article on computers http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Computers are not interested in reading the article from start to finish. Their interest has a specific slant — a context — that varies from one reader to the next and even, for the same reader, from one access to the next. If that slant is the history of computers, they can find some information in the computers article if they spend (i.e., waste) time looking for it. Worse, if that slant is the future of computers, as of this writing they can waste time looking, but find nothing.
What is needed is to supplement the current set of articles labeled with single subjects with articles labeled with any two subjects (hence “wikiwikipedia”). If there are 4 million single-subject articles, there would then be 4 million x 4 million double-subject articles (that’s 16 trillion!). While most of these would be stubs generated on the fly upon request, any of them could be edited just like ordinary single-subject articles. The result: a burgeoning, vibrant community of encyclopedia contributors to augment the current one, which is moving slowly but inexorably toward ossification and sclerosis. More importantly, wikiwikipedia will be a home for the “information-seeking majority,” the many of us who often seek not just general information, but information in a customized context.
Wikiwikiwikipedia. Providing users with information in context is a start, but tailoring information to the specific need of a user at a specific moment requires true customization. Taken to its natural conclusion, this requires a system that dialogues with its user, answering a question, receiving a followup question, answering that one, and so on, to efficiently transfer knowledge from system to user. What unit of information should such a system use as the coin of its realm? Like chiseled inscriptions on flat animal bones used for divination, that proved the Shang dynasty of over 3,000 years ago really existed, to Otlet’s 3×5 index cards, the information unit is the sentence-length passage. Similarly, tutors interact with their pupils in a highly interactive manner, frequently using sentence-length passages. Historically, the Socratic method also often relies on sentence-length passages. The sentence is a natural unit of knowledge. If the future of wikipedia is wikiwikipedia, then let the future of wikiwikipedia be this: a user interface that extends the current wikipedia-style interface by permitting a user to request a highly interactive dialogue. In this efficient knowledge transferring dialogue session, the user asks questions and each answer is intelligently chosen to be the best possible sentence-length passage from the wikiwikipedia body of knowledge – wikiwikiwikipedia.
According to Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee…: (1) Information Management: A Proposal, CERN, 1989, Http://www.w3.org/History/1989/proposal.html; (2) Welcome to info.cern.ch, the website of the world’s first-ever web server, http://info.cern.ch/.
“The Word-Wide Web (W3) was developed to be pool of human knowledge”: T. Berners-Lee, R. Cailliau, A. Luotonen, H. F. Nielsen, and A. Secret, The World-Wide Web, Communications of the ACM, vol. 37, no. 8, Aug. 1994, pp. 907–912.
“overflowed this original goal to become a vast sea”: N. Montfort and N. Wardrip-Fruin, “54. [Introduction] The World-Wide Web,” in Wardrip-Fruin and Montfort, eds., The New Media Reader, MIT Press, 2003, p. 791. ISBN 0−262−23227−8.
“In the 1960s Doug Englebart built the first hypertext system”: called NLS, it grew out of D. C. Englebart, Augmenting human intellet: a conceptual framework, SRI Summary Report AFOSR-322, SRI Project No. 3578, October 1962, http://www.dougengelbart.org/pubs/augment-3906.html.
“Well, Englebart also invented the mouse!” See images at http://images.iop.org/objects/ccr/cern/40/10/24/cernbooks2_12-00.jpg and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Firstmouseunderside.jpg.
“On his first day back to work after becoming engaged in 1950″ and following quotes: Q&A with Douglas Engelbart, Back Door, vol. 2, Issue 4, p. 108, http://www.computerpoweruser.com/editorial/article.asp?artic.….F61c04.asp. See also various other sources, such as: Engelbart on the epiphany: “Bingo: it just occurred to me,” chapter in V. Landau and E. Clegg, The Engelbart Hypothesis: Dialogs with Douglas Engelbart, NextPress, 2nd ed., 2009, ISBN 978–0615308906.
“Vannevar Bush’s famous 1945 Atlantic Monthly article ‘As we may think.’” July, 1945, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1969/12/as-we-may-think/3881/.
“It is earlier than we think”: chapter IX of V. Bush, Science is Not Enough, Morrow, 1967.
“Ted Nelson, then a professor at Vassar College…coined the term hypertext”: L. Wedeles, Prof. Nelson talk analyzes P.R.I.D.E, Vassar Miscellany News, Feb. 3, 1965, http://faculty.vassar.edu/mijoyce/MiscNews_Feb65.html. See also, Did Ted Nelson first use the word “hypertext” at Vassar Colege” What is Vassar’s claim? Http://faculty.vassar.edu/mijoyce/Ted_sed.html.
“His Xanadu project”: home page at http://www.xanadu.com.au/.
“The World Wide Web is what we were trying to prevent…”: S. Ditlea, Xanadu’s creator at 60: still visionary, still cantankerous, New York Times On the Web, June 21, 1997, http://www.nytimes.com/library/cyber/week/062297nelson.html.
“Literary Machines.” Ted Nelson, Mindful Press, numerous editions 1980–1993.
“The storied Analytical Engine of Charles Babbage…”: see e.g. C. Babbage, Of the Analytical Engine, chap. 8 in Passages from the Life of a Philosopher, 1864, http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/lpae.html.
“…yet programs were nevertheless written for it in 1842–3 by Ada Lovelace”: English Translation with Notes by the Translator, Ada Augusta, Countess of Lovelace, of L. F. Menabrea, Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage, Bibliothèque Universelle de Genève, October, 1842, No. 82; http://www.fourmilab.ch/babbage/sketch.html.
“As he wrote in 1892…”: P. Otlet, Something about bibliography, chap. 1 in W. B. Rayward (ed. and translator), International Organisation and Dissemination of Knowledge: Selected Essays of Paul Otlet, Elsevier Science Publishers B.V., 1990, pp. 11–24, http://www.archive.org/stream/internationalorg00otle/interna.….e_djvu.txt.