Saturday, 27 January 2018

World Brain (1939)

So here's another collection of Wellsian public speechifying and occasional journalism, this time summing up his various views on education and world unity 1936-38. Below, with the original publications or venues of the various pieces added, is the table of contents:
1. World Encyclopaedia
(Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, November 20th, 1936)
2. The Brain Organisation of the Modern World
(Lecture delivered at several places in America, October-November, 1937)
3. The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopedia
(Contribution to the Encyclopédie Française, August 1937)
4. Passage from a Speech to the Congrès Mondial de la Documentation Universelle, Paris, August 20th, 1937
5. The Informative Content of Education
(Presidential Address to the Education Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, September 2nd, 1937)

Appendix I. Ruffled Teachers
(Sunday Chronicle, September 12th, 1937)
Appendix II. Palestine in Proportion
(Sunday Chronicle, October 3rd, 1937)
Appendix III. The Fall in America, 1937
(Collier's, January 28th, 1938)
Appendix IV. Transatlantic Misunderstandings
(Liberty, January 15th, 1938)
Appendix V. — The English-Speaking World: ‘As I See It’
(Broadcast talk delivered December 1st, 1937)
What comes most clearly from reading through these piece is Wells's increasingly baffled frustration that things are going so manifestly wrong all around him, when he has, on so many occasions, explained carefully how to make things come right. The problem, he thinks, is not a lack of utopian ambition among his fellow humans but, on the contrary, an excess of it, provoking hastiness of execution that in turn leads to failure. He is sure we all agree, more or less, that ‘all men are brothers’, but he also notes that ‘Spain and China are poor evidence of that fraternity’. ‘We know we want these things quite clearly, but we have still to learn how they are to be got’:
Man reflects before he acts, but not very much; he is still by nature intellectually impatient. No sooner does he apprehend, in whole or in part, the need of a new world, than, without further plans or estimates, he gem into a state of passionate aggressiveness and suspicion and sets about trying to change the present order. There and then, he sets about it, with anything that comes handy, violently, disastrously, making the discordances worse instead of better, and quarrelling bitterly with any one who is not in complete accordance with his particular spasmodic conception of the change needful. He is unable to realise that when the time comes to act, that also is the time to think fast and hard. He will not think enough. [World Brain, ‘Preface’]
It's a question of a panicked world scrabbling desperately for guidance:
‘Right’ dictators there are and ‘Left’ dictators, and in effect there is hardly a pin to choose between them. The important thing about them from our present point of view, is that fear-saturated impatience for guidance, which renders dictatorships possible. First there comes a terrifying realisation of the limitless uncontrolled changes now in progress, then wild stampedes, suspicions, mass murders and finally mus ridiculus the Hero emerges, a poor single, silly, little human cranium held high and adorned usually with something preposterous in the way of hats.
Hats is nice, although, if I wanted to be super-critical, I might note that Wells doesn't give us any more specific reason to trust the worthiness of the nostrums he peddles than do these behatted strutted autocrats. At least he's not running for political office, I guess.

‘The missing factor in human affairs,’ Wells insists, ‘is a gigantic and many-sided educational renascence’, and much of World Brain is given over to this topic. ‘It is science and not men of science that we want to enlighten and animate our politics and rule the world,’ [1] he insists, and to that end we need a World Brain (he is pleasantly imprecise about the actual physiology of this global cortex ‘something—a new social organ, a new institution—a World Encyclopedia’; later he specifically says ‘for the present it is desirable to leave this project of a World Encyclopedic organisation vague’ [2]). The purpose will be to ‘bring all the scattered and ineffective mental wealth of our world into something like a common understanding, and into effective reaction upon our vulgar everyday political, social and economic life’ [1].

The specific demand for a World Encyclopedia is as old as 1913's The Passionate Friends, and was variously restated by Wells through the 1920s and 1930s (Wells even satirises excessive, pedantic enthusiasm for the idea in the character of Preeder in The Camford Visitation). I'm not sure I can see a way past the condescension of hindsight when it comes to noting that we, more or less, possess such an Encyclopedia today, in the Wikipedia/Google Books/Project Gutenberg annex of ‘The Internet’ and that this seems to have promoted neither world peace nor any general brother/sisterhood. So for now all I'll do is register my sense that there's something, well ... quaint about Wells insistence than an authoritative statement of the facts of things will put an end to all dissension. True, he notes, it is sometimes claimed that ‘no two people think alike’, ‘that science is always contradicting itself, that theologians and economists can never agree’. But Wells insists it is only ‘mental laziness on the defensive that makes people say this kind of thing’ (‘they don't want their intimate convictions turned over and examined’) and that a properly constituted World Encyclopedia would function as ‘an organ of adjustment and adjudication, a clearing house of misunderstandings’ [2] and so banish all human disagreement.


On education he boils down school-age childhood to ‘a maximum of 240 hours in the year’ arguing that we are therefore ‘given 2,400 hours as all that we can hope for as our time allowance for building up a coherent picture of the world, the essential foundation of knowledge and ideas, in the minds of our people’ [5]. He goes on to break this down, with the help of charts, to suggest we should teach more science and less history (‘I do not see either the charm or the educational benefit of making an important subject of and throwing a sort of halo of prestige and glory about the criminal history of royalty, the murder of the Princes in the Tower, the wives of Henry VIII, the families of Edward I and James I, the mistresses of Charles II, Sweet Nell of Old Drury, and all the rest of it’), and to make a variety of other suggestions.

The appendices have their fun moments. In the first, ‘Ruffled Teachers’, Wells responds to a complaint occasioned by his ‘2,400 hours’ Address to the Education Section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, just mentioned. In that talk, he says, he observed that teachers ‘were going along much as they did in 1900’. This was reported in the press as him saying teachers were ‘drooling along much as they did in 1900’, which phrase caused offence to actual teachers. He apologizes here, though he blames sloppy reporting for the misunderstanding.

The ‘Palestine’ appendix is just a kind of expression of Wellsian bafflement that so many people in so many religions get so worked up about this small portion of land bordering the eastern cul-de-sac of the Mediterranean: he says he wants to get ‘Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses’ and Palestine itself ‘out of the way so that our children shall start with a better perspective of the world’. Good luck with that. Appendix III supplies the surprising diagnosis of the Great Depression in America as a problem of inadequate education; and the last appendix insists that, though a World Encyclopedia might seem like an expensive item, it ought not to be:
You may think an Encyclopedia is something only rich people can afford to buy. It ought not to be. If you can afford a radio set, if you can afford a motor-car, surely you can afford a summary of human thought and knowledge. Encyclopedias need not be as dear as they are, any more than books or bibliographies. Cheaper books, handy bibliographies, a great encyclopedia, our English-speaking world needs all these things. When automobiles first came along, they seemed likely to become a rich man's monopoly. They cost upwards of £1,000. Henry Ford altered all that. He put the poor man on the road. We want a Henry Ford today to modernise the distribution of knowledge, make good knowledge cheap and easy in this still very ignorant, ill-educated, ill-served English-speaking world of ours. Which might be the greatest power on earth for the consolidation of humanity and the establishing of an enduring creative Pax for all mankind. [World Brain, Appendix V]
Again, the internet has certainly lowered the bar of accessing All The Knowledge In The World well below £1,000. Not that it's brought about creative Pax for all mankind. But then one can't have everything.

1 comment:

  1. Well, we're closing in on the increasingly inevitable Wellsian endpoint of MIND AT THE END OF ITS TETHER.(Appropriately enough, a 'book' that's only 34 pages long, according to Wikipedia.)

    It seems fairly clear that in the tragedy-to-those-who-feel vs. comedy-to-those-who-think trade-off, Wells increasingly got trapped in the first category for all his brightness. And that in large measure this happened because he never much evolved his socio-political beliefs from when he initially formulated them back around the century's turn or before.

    I think the poster calling themself Phil (IIRC) made some insightful remarks about why an autodidact like Wells, with his particular public role (Orwell made the comment somewhere that the way people lived 'now' in the mid-20th century was as much a product of Wells's prophetic writing decades earlier as any other factor) might be particularly prone to becoming entrenched like that.

    Additionally, apropos of your comment about Wells's 'surprising diagnosis of the Great Depression in America (being) a problem of inadequate education' it's fairly clear that if one can get a payment equivalent to a quarter million dollars in today's money for one article for COLLIERS magazine in 1934, as Wells did, while all _this_ is going on ...

    ... then one is living hopelessly in 'the bubble' and will be increasingly clueless. As Wells was, I guess.