Who Wins?

Below is an essay I wrote a class, which I think is (just) entertain enough to repost here. I also have a funny story to go along with the post: I was talking to our grader about what he thought of our collective effort. His response, “there was a lot of enthusiasm”. Do you think this is the equivalent of being asked, “So, what’s your friend like?” and getting the answer, “Oh, she has a really nice personality”?

Without further ado, here’s the essay

Who Gets Credit and Why Do We Care:

The Tale of Two Men, Many Index Cards, and the Hypertext System

            If Al Gore did not invent the Internet[1], then who did? Vannevar Bush (no relations to Mr. Gore’s vanquisher, George W. Bush) puts forth an idea in a 1945 Atlantic Monthly article titled “As We May Think” that may well win him the prize. The idea is associative indexing. The prize for which Bush is eligible, however, is not exactly for inventing the Internet but for anticipating hypertext systems, the most famous example of which is the World Wide Web. This is a very prestigious prize, as evidenced by the fact that more than 60 years after Bush wrote the article that makes him a contender for it, the article still being read and discussed. Of course no prestigious prizes can go uncontested, so true to form, another name has emerged that is being advanced by many, not least The New York Times, as the “true” anticipator of today’s Internet. The contender is Paul Otlet. This paper will discuss Dr. Bush and Mr. Otlet’s claims to what I shall call “The Anticipator of the Year” award and tries to understand why we care who wins.

In 1934, Paul Otlet published a treatise called Traité de Documentation. In it, he envisions a system for storing the entire world’s knowledge in a naturally most organized, logical way that ensures easy retrieval and facilitates answering any reference questions that may arise. The classification system is a variant of the Dewey Decimal System, and the storage was first on index cards and loose leaves from books. Predictably, the amount of paper involved for recording all the information Otlet wanted soon began to be overwhelming. However, necessity is the mother of dreaming up ideas for solving all of one’s problems (and in Otlet’s case possibly winning “Anticipator of the Year”). Thus, Otlet dreams of a proto-Web in which information would not be stored in physical forms, like paper, but on “intellectual machines” that allows for “texts to be made available for remote reading” and annotation “in such a way that the original texts were not disturbed” (Rayward (1994)). More importantly, all of these texts will be compiled in repositories, or databases, and

each of the databases, bibliographic, image, and textual, and each of the collections created by the application of the monographic principle, would be implicitly linked to each other through the use of the same database management system, UDC. (Rayward (1994))

This last idea that led Rayward (1994) to conclude that Otlet “is a precursor of Bush (1945) . . . and others who have set the hypertext/hypermedia agenda in recent years and that he anticipated many of the features of Bush’s memex, Nelson’s Xanadu, and hypertext.” Similarly, the New York Times article by Alex Wright (2008) crowed that Otlet’s idea of “networked machine that joined documents using symbolic links . . . [is a] conceptual breakthrough” and its 1934 date precedes the oft-credited Vannevar Bush, Doug Engelbart and Ted Nelson.

It is undisputed that Bush’s idea for associative indexing was not published until 1945, a good 11 years after Otlet’s Traité de Documentation. One may also be excused for thinking Bush unknowingly repeated a lot of Otlet’s idea. Like Otlet, he images texts being compressed to manageable size and stored in a device he calls a “memex”. Like Otlet, he envisions the contents of the memex being linked for easy retrieval. One can link two items in a memex, just like one can put one’s key and wallet in the same box to remind one to take both when going out the door. This link imitates the “associate indexing” that a human brain naturally does but with the advantage that the memex does not forget. Two linked item will remain together, so that whenever a person accesses one, the other will be at his fingertips.

So who wins the Anticipator award? On the one hand, Otlet seems to have precedence – 11 years before anyone can nominate Bush, Otlet has already made his bid with Traité de Documentation. On the other hand, how many people know the name of Paul Otlet today? (Admittedly, probably not that many people know “Vannevar Bush” either, but relative to Otlet, Bush is “practically a household name”.) Why is there more general acknowledgement of Bush than Otlet as the anticipator of the Internet?

Perhaps it is simply a case of “no scientific discovery/anticipation is named after its original discoverer/anticipator”. Still, we can ask “why not?”. In this case, it probably did not help that Otlet wrote Traité de Documentation, and not Treatise for Documentation. That is, he did not write in English, in a popular forum like The Atlantic. This matters because the Internet came to prominence in the U.S., and it was this prominence that prompted people to look to see whence the idea for it sprang.  It may be natural that people looked first among the country’s own thinkers to trace the evolution of the Internet (in documents whose language they understand), and once they found Vannevar Bush, the case was closed. It also probably did not help that Otlet wrote in a style described (perhaps despairingly) by the man most credited for bringing his name out of obscurity, W. Boyd Rayward, as “long and exhausting”. Finally, as Wright pointed out, Hitler did not facilitate Otlet’s push for the Anticipator award by destroying most of his work during the Nazi occupation of Belgium in WWII.

Was it just a matter of rotten luck that Bush and not Otlet who now seems to be the forerunner for Anticipator of the Year? Instead of answering this question, I’d like to ask why we are even asking it. Why do we care who was the first to anticipate the Internet? By “we”, I exclude the people who presumably have the most stake on the matter, Vannevar Bush and Paul Otlet. For they are both dead, and until persuaded otherwise, I’m going to continue to assume that dead people do not mind whether they receive the prestigious Anticipator of the Year prize or not. The Mundaneum, now a museum dedicated to Otlet’s work, and its curators care because if more people recognize Otlet as the forefather of today’s Internet, more people are likely to visit the museum.

What about the rest of us? Why do we care to engage in a debate about who should be credited with being the first to anticipate hypertext systems? (Please note that I am not asking why we care about the details of each man’s work, what he proposed, or how close to far he came to the actual World Wide Web today. I am asking the narrower question of why the need to give primacy of place to either Otlet or Bush for anticipating the Web.)

In a world with unlimited resources, of course, we would not ask this question. This is because in a world of unlimited resources, there is no reason to ask why anything. We can do everything, so why not; there is no need to prioritize; there is no tradeoff between obsessing about two figures in history and accomplishing something else. The irony is that in a world with unlimited resources, Otlet and Bush would never have advocated either of their systems. After all, both were designed to cope with the problems of limited time, memory, and index cards – remove these constraints, and both men would have done something else with their lives.

Happily or unhappily, however, we live in a world with resource constraints. So why do we care to always compare Otlet’s contribution to Bush’s? To say that one man is the anticipator, while the other is the anticipator of the anticipator? At the very least, we are intellectually curious creatures. Our interest in Otlet or Bush can be as shallow as being able to flash an interesting fact about either personality at a cocktail party (perhaps after we have, however gracefully or awkwardly, steered the conversation in that direction). We may just like being the contrarian voice in the group who has a definite opinion that it is one and not the other who anticipates the World Wide Web. Alternatively, our interest may go deeper. We may obsess about this question because of a noble impulse to “set the records straight”, to be as accurate about history as we can, to plumb the depths of dusty archives and come up with nuggets of knowledge, presumably worth their weight in gold.

I call this a noble impulse because, of course, the way we use the World Wide Web, or any actual hypertext system, would not change one bit whatever conclusion we reach about Otlet or Bush. Except for some psychic satisfaction, what we learn about Otlet or Bush probably matters less to our daily lives and behavior than, say, the speed of our Internet connection. The most that can be said is that deciding who is the Anticipator may be important “just in case” – just in case of what, I do not know, but the beauty of “just in case” rationales is that the unknown cases are more compelling to action than the (lack of the) known.

Finally, one reason why we engage in this intellectual debate about who is to be recognized for having first anticipated the Internet is that neither man actually invented anything. If either Otlet or Bush had actually made a commercial device that can be used, then their work would have been more tangible and evaluated by market mechanism. As it is, all we have are words on a page. From that, we derive only more words on more pages.


[1] This is not to suggest that former Vice President Al Gore laid claim to having invented the Internet. Mr. Gore’s precise statement, which was subsequently interpreted by many as his having claimed credit for inventing the Internet, is “During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet.” At the very least, this is a more nuanced statement than “I, Al Gore, invented the Internet”.

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One Response to Who Wins?

  1. teasandbooks says:

    My first use of the “More” (after the jump? after the break? continue reading?) function.

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