In 1934, a little-known Belgian bibliographer named Paul Otlet described something very much like the World Wide Web, sketching out plans for a network of “electric telescopes” connecting people to a vast collection of documents, images, and audio-visual material. He dubbed the whole thing the Mundaneum, describing it as a “réseau mondial” – a worldwide web.
Why should anyone still pay attention to the failed schemes of a long-dead Belgian bibliographer? Otlet’s work matters today not just as a kind of historical curio, but because he envisioned a radically different kind of network: one driven not by corporate profit and personal vanity, but by a utopian vision of intellectual progress, social egalitarianism, and even spiritual liberation.
This presentation will delve deep into Otlet’s alternative vision of a global network, in search of useful lessons that could reshape our understanding of what the Web could yet become.
Alex Wright is the Director of Research at Etsy and the former Director of User Experience and Product Research at The New York Times. He is also a professor of interaction design at The School of Visual Arts and the author of Cataloging the World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age (Oxford University Press, 2014). He has previously led interaction design and research projects for IBM, Yahoo!, The Long Now Foundation and the California Digital Library, among others. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Wilson Quarterly, The Believer, and Harvard Magazine, among others.