Saturday, October 3, 2009

Computing for peace....

Does computing play a role in achieving peace, or has it made things worse? In a way, I guess you can say it has made things worse, but at the same time, those same technologies that play a vital part in defence (strangely enough, this is always called "defence", no country admits to having "attcking" armed forces, despite that fact that someone really has to start) has also often benefited society largely.

Although the question is difficult, as compting is so mixed up with outher technological advances in the 20th century, and to a large extent also irrelevant, i.e. computing just will not go away, you can also think of what computing has done in the name of peace and democracy.

Today, Internet, Mobile phones and other messaging systems are being used to drive democratic movements. You might argue that this is also benefiting the evil forces in the same way, and this is true, but here I am about to write about an event in history which was a bit different.

There has always been those who are believers in a cause and a means, to the extent that they, at least seen in hindsight, look incredibly naivë. One such person is H. G. Wells, the well-known "father of Science Fiction", and the author of such well-known novels such as The War of the Worlds, which is usually rememberd for the famous Radio Broadcast in 1938, read by Orson Welles, that caused panic among the listeners, believing that this was for real.

Now, what does this have to do with Computing and Peace you ask? Well, H. G. Wells has. In the 19th Century, the world saw many "universal geniuses", many more than today. Two reasons for were:
  • It hadn't been the case before, as before the encyclopedia (invented, if you wish, in the 18th century), it was difficult to find the data you needed to ebcome a genius, and in oarticular books became more readily available.
  • It didn't happen in the next centrury, because as science progressed at break-neck speed in the 19th century, it became real difficult to be an expert in more than a limited number of areas. In the 19th centry, most people with enough time, money (which means most people were out) and the intelligence of a reasonably smart squirrel, could become a genius in some field, just by picking up an encyclopedia.
But there were other views on the encyclopedia than to create loads of world geniuses, and really smart squirrels. No the ambition was set higher than that. Actually, the Encyclopedia was a centerpiece of the Age of Enlightment of the 18th century. The radical, at the time, idea behind the encyclopedia was that if people were knowledged, they would live in peace. Call it naivë, but this was an important part of the ideas at the time.

By the early 20th century, the amount of knowledge of our world had exploded. The encyclopedia, which once could hold a significant fraction of the knowledge of the world was now not able to keep up, for a couple of reasons:
  • There was just much knowledge to keep in even a large encyclopedia.
  • The advances in science was getting faster, and printing of encyclopedias just couldn't keep up with the pace of scientific research.
  • There is just so much data you can pack into the brain of even a very smart squirrel.
So who was there, in the early 29th centrury, to pick up the ideas from the Age of Enlightment? Well, I'm afraid it was, in those days, largely socialists and liberals. Looking at what socialism represented in the early 20th century is interesting, it was an enormous mish mash of different kind of ideas. A rather common theme was the unity of people around the world, one way or the other. This sounds like a weird thing today, I know, but I'm just relating facts here (any complaints can be addressed to my assistant squirrel). H. G. Wells was a socialist, largely, and was an admirerer of Lenin, although less impressed by Stalin. I'm not sure this is a good thing, and where this blogpost is heading now...

Anyway, H. G. Wells picked up the political idea of the encyclopedia, i.e. if we all have knowledge, there will be peace (yeah, right). And H. G. Wells had an idea for solving the issues with the encyclopedia (expect the one involving squirrels, that still remains to be fixed). The idea was that instead of having all that vast amount of knowledge packed in expensive and cumbersome books, give people immediate access to all knowledge in the world by more modern means of communication.

The idea was conceived by Wells in the 1930s (no, this is not a typo), and the idea he had was for a metal clearinghouse for the mind. Also, he determined that this data need not be concentrated in one place, it might well be in the form of a network. You see where I'm getting with this? The idea was that this network would consitute a World Brain (exclduing the squirrel brains).

Now, you might thing that this is just something from a crazed out froot loop of Sci-Fi author. He probably was receiving death rays from his neighbour at regular intervals also. Nope, that isn't so, not at all. In 1937, Wells toured the US with his "The Brain Organization of the Modern World" talk, it was broadcast in Radio and Wells also presented his idea to President Squirrel, no, sorry, President Roosevelt.

What was the result? Well, not much really. The World Brain idea might have influenced by Vannevar Bush when he was working on his idea for a Memex, and Bush in turn influenced most aspects of how we know and work with computers these days.

The closest thing to a World Brain today, as Wells saw it, is probably Wikipedia. For example, this is a quote by Wells on how the Would Brain would work: "A great number of workers would be engaged ... perfecting the index of human knowledge..."