H G Wells' pre-internet idea of a World Brain.

From the web, I was reading an academic's survey of Wells' proposal of a digest or abstract of mankind's increasing knowledge. He wrote several works about this including World Brain ( 1938 ), The Idea of a World Encyclopedia ( 1936 ), Science and the World Mind ( 1942 ). Ive never seen any of these works so I was relying on the article to learn something about them. The author was concerned to warn against what he believed to be the dangers of "social repression" in Wells' conception.

Never the less, it's a good idea and has been justified by events, in that the sciences do have journals which are abstracts of the increasingly unmanagable output of the profession. As far back as his utopian science fiction, Men Like Gods, he envisaged publication available to all. Until the world wide web, this was just a dream. Yet, it seems unlikely that the internet will be enough to help education win the race against catastrophe. ( One of Wells' most famous pronouncements is that "Civilisation is a race between education and catastrophe." )

Let's give credit where it's due. Amongst many other things, Wells foresaw that information would have to be assimilated on a world scale to promote the most efficient growth of knowledge and harmoniously foster human talent and progress. He drew attention to the need and pioneered its supply with his own encyclopedias to educate the world.
He was responsible for a charter of scientific fellowship ( quoted on my other site , with the Sankey Declaration he also inspired ) to promote the democracy of science.
Not to admit the consistency of Wells' commitment to free speech, free debate and publication is simply to misrepresent him.

The critic ( W Boyd Rayward ) excuses himself for citing Wells' works out of context, with a "pastiche" of quotations. He notes Wells' reservations about the relevance of universities to human problems, and repays the compliment.
The fact is, by selective quotations, you can prove practically anything about anybody. You could argue that Beethoven was a non-entity as a symphonist with reference to the once popular Battle Symphony, mentioning that he also wrote nine other symphonies.
Scholars have shown to their satisfaction that Jesus was a political insurrectionist. Or equally, academics have shown him to be a barefoot philosopher with an academic's indifference to the world. A latter-day pharisee sees him as a pharisee, and a gnostic sees him as a gnostic. You could say he has been shown to be all things to all men who have held up mirrors to him. People have done this about Jesus and he never wrote anything, or nothing he wrote has survived, so far as we know. Imagine how easy it is to condemn a man by his own words, if he wrote over a hundred books during more than fifty years of turmoil.

There is nothing wrong in devil's advocacy. Wells was no saint, to be sure. But it would be more honest to admit the prosecution role. Some of Mr Rayward's quotations remind of a compedium of worst verse from the great poets. These shadowings of the great poets are merely amusing flops because everyone knows where the balance of the truth is. If the shadow of H G Wells looms large, that is not out of keeping with his times. Tho he was not as consistent and influential as John Stuart Mill in the nineteenth century, it is little known that Wells' better non-fiction writings offer the first half of the twentieth century about the nearest thing to a democrat of distinction, when democracy seemed an unfashionable failure.

It is a pity that Mr Rayward fails to recognise this fact. Because, the real significance of an unbalanced portrayal is what it says about the portrayer rather than his subject - a failure of the portrayer to rise to his subject. He concludes that the idea of a "world brain" "may be interpreted as becoming an expression of totalitarian values and authoritarian control." So it may.

But this is a fact: H G Wells is one of the liberators of the human mind. Wells worked as much as anyone, as essentially stated in the preamble to the 1940 Declaration of Human Rights, to re-assert the rights of the individual against every extension of political and economic control.
When all his faults and short-comings have been admitted, it must be said that Wells did try to improve democracy, in practical terms. Established wisdom seems mainly to serve established things. That is why one has to go back to Wells.

Wells admired Plato's Republic and sometimes called his utopia "The New Republic". The critic refered to A Modern Utopia ( 1905 ) for Wells' four categories of human beings ( kinetic, poietic, dull, base ). This is one of the dullest works Wells ever wrote, and Wells was rarely "dull". Occasionally he was "base". ( Arent we all? ) The Early H G Wells was "poietic" ( or "mythopoietic" - myth-making - as critic Bernard Bergonzli said in his study of his late Victorian science fiction ). His later works were "kinetic" - he certainly "moved" a new declaration of rights, that influenced the UN Charter.

Wells' early SF could also be called the work of a maker or poet in the familiar sense. This is testified by T S Eliot, who called "unforgettable" the sunrise on First Men In The Moon.

Wells follows Plato's practise of categorising human types. He admired Plato for making him realise that society could be changed after one's own heart. To the end of his life, he found a place in his thinking for this Platonic way of dividing people up into crude classes, which is arguably the wrong way. And also most un-Wellsian in its philosophy. Wells was a nominalist and not a Platonic realist. He didnt believe in the reality of concepts, but regarded them only as more or less useful labels or names. Normally, we would expect Wells to say that a classification of human beings into four types did no justice to human diversity.

Then again, as the limitations of old age descend, I suspect that government and the Establishment are rather well characterised as the dull and the base. ( Long-rejected parties especially try to convince otherwise. )

Our academic critic may not have been aware that this categorical limitation in Wells' thinking was not characteristic. But it is odd that another work he chooses to cite is a work of fiction, The Shape Of Things To Come. Again, this is not one of Wells' many works for which I have a high regard. The early pages are just one of many examples, in his fiction and non-fiction alike, in which Wells displays his gift for social history. But that book's future history, which was bound to be over-taken by events, is peculiarly unsatisfying to read. Maybe, it is because the style is journalistic, giving an impression of being an epic of misreported events. It was more successful when cut down and re-cast imaginatively, as the film story, Things To Come.

The Shape Of Things To Come is just one of many fictions in which a new elite takes over the running of the world. Who can deny that the world is still run by elites?

Richard Lung.
2005; revised and posted May 2006.

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