The conventional history of the Internet usually emphasizes its roots in computer science: from networking pioneers like Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn to hypertext visionaries like Ted Nelson and Tim Berners-Lee. While these inventors certainly deserve their due for developing technologies that have transformed the way many of us create and consume information, the roots of the modern information age stretch further back than many of us may think.
In 1934, a Belgian information scientist named Paul Otlet described his vision of a global “réseau” (network) of computer terminals that would provide access to millions of interlinked documents, images, audio and video files. Otlet’s startlingly prescient vision - fifty years before the invention of the Web - suggests that the underlying causes of today’s information explosion may have been coming into view long before the advent of the Internet.
Similar visions of a global information network also appeared in the work of important thinkers like H.G. Wells, Vannevar Bush, and even Mark Twain, who in 1904 described something called a “telectroscope.” But Otlet’s vision stands out for its remarkable level of detail. The environment he described relied on a highly sophisticated classification scheme, semantic links, and a level of quality control that might seem impossibly far-fetched in today’s anything-goes Web world. He even anticipated the notion of social networks, describing how users might one day “participate, applaud, give ovations, sing in the chorus.”
How could Otlet have imagined such a system in an age before microchips, personal computers or networking protocols? In the early twentieth century, he seems to have spotted a confluence of economic and technological forces that were accelerating the production of recorded information. The industrialization of the printing press, the rise of institutional “knowledge bureaus,” and the emergence of a literate Western citizenry who could suddenly afford to buy cheaply produced books and periodicals, all contributed to an unprecedented outpouring of published knowledge that would continue to accelerate throughout the twentieth century and up to the present day. Otlet saw these trends coming before most of his contemporaries, and started to imagine a radical new solution for managing the data deluge: a networked information environment.
While it would be misleading to say that Otlet “invented” the Internet- that credit properly goes to Cerf and others - his work not only helps illuminate some of the historical conditions that gave rise to our networked world, but also paints a tantalizing portrait of a technological road not taken.