So, whoa. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Vannevar Bush’s seminal As We May Think, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945, was the first time anyone had described something like the modern desktop computer and the World Wide Web. Not so, says Alex Wright in Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (@ Amazon). A Belgian chap named Paul Otlet described something called the “radiated library” — or the “televised book” — in 1934:
Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.
Sweet fancy Macintosh, if that’s not what we’re all doing right here on the web all day.
Much of the section in the book on Otlet was first published by Wright in a Boxes and Arrows essay called Forgotten Father: Paul Otlet. Wright’s extensive online bibliography for Glut should keep you busy for a few hours when you’re done with that. (I wish all the books I read were accompanied by such bibliographies.) I’ll also recommend a related read and one of my favorite technology books, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (@ Amazon):
It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, skepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746).
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my televised book.