Sunday, 1 March 2009

Paul Otlet (1868-1944) and Vannevar Bush (1890-1974)

If Vannevar Bush’s visions on associative trails in the Memex and a World Wide Web-like interconnected Memex infrastructure looks advanced, visionary, and revolutionary for its time, consider the following quotation from Paul Otlet’s Monde: essaie d’universalisme published in 1935:

L’homme n’aurait plus besoin de documentation s’il était assimilé à un être devenu omniscient, à la manière de Dieu même. A un degré moins ultime serait créée une instrumentation agissant à distance qui combinerait à la fois la radio, les rayons Röntgen, le cinéma et la photographie microscopique. Toutes les choses de l’univers, et toutes celles de l’homme seraient enregistrées à distance à mesure qu’elles se produiraient. Ainsi serait établie l’image mouvante du monde, sa mémoire, son véritable double. Chacun à distance pourrait lire le passage lequel, agrandi et limité au sujet désiré, viendrait se projeter sur l’écran individuel. Ainsi, chacun dans son fauteuil pourrait contempler la création, en son entier ou en certaines de ses parties. (Otlet, 1935, p. 390-391)

Unlike Vannevar Bush who, with his Memex proposal, wanted to tackle the quantitative problem of the information overload in the exact sciences, Paul Otlet (1868-1944), a Belgian lawyer, bibliographer, and ‘utopian’ internationalist, proposed solutions for the qualitative problem of information overload in the sociological sciences. Therefore he proposed ‘the creation of a kind of artificial brain by means of cards containing actual information or simply notes or references’ (Otlet, 1990a [1891], p. 16) on the social sciences with the information broken down into four categories: facts, interpretation of facts, statistics, and sources (Otlet, 1990a [1891], p. 15):

The ideal [...] would be to strip each article or each chapter in a book of whatever is a matter of fine language or repetition or padding and to collect separately on cards whatever is new and adds to knowledge. These cards, minutely subdivided, each one annotated as to the genus and species of he information they contain, because they are separate could then be accurately placed in a general alphabetical catalogue updated each day. (Otlet, 1990a [1891], p. 17)

The choice for separate cards allowed for indefinite addition, continuous interfiling, repetitive manipulation and classification, and direct utilisation. This, he called the Monographic Principle. A hierarchically arrangement of the scientific nomenclature could then be the basis for the production of a catalogue of cards, establishing practical links between the catalogue, its contents, and the referred publications. Therefore he developed the Universal Decimal Classification System (UDC), which is still in use in many academic libraries in Europe.

The monographic principle and the decimal classification system allowed Paul Otlet to manage a vast amount of data and run a knowledge information centre in the Palais du Monde or Mundaneum. His collection grew from 1895 onwards at an exponential pace and consisted by 1934 of over 15 million entries which could be consulted on the premises and by mail. This research service was kept in operation till the early 1970s and it was a manual enterprise comprising the following steps described by Rayward (1991):


  • Translation of subject requests into UDC numerical search terms
  • Manual searching and retrieval of relevant monographic entries
  • Removing of entries from the files
  • Copying the entries by hand or using a typewriter
  • Refiling the entries
  • Mailing the duplicated results of the enquiry to the enquirer

No wonder Otlet was constantly on the look-out for the mechanization or automatisation of the several steps involved in this procedure. Especially data duplication and data retrieval and access were at the heart of his interests in the application of technology for the documentary discipline. In his writings dating from the first three decades of the 20th century, and years before Bush's seminal As We May Think, Otlet described every piece of technology Bush foresees in 1945:

Cyclops camera

Un appareil de poche permettant de photographier instanément et économiquement tout passage ou image d’un livre à consulter dans une bibliothèque ou en lecture sur la table de travail. (Otlet, 1934, p. 390)

Microfilm
But, according to a common slogan, do we not live in a time in which yesterday’s utopia is today’s dream and tomorrows’s reality? In order to create the most serious expectations let us simply recall the following result of combining microphotography and enlargement by projection which has already been achieved and widely used: a roll of motion picture film 50 metres long can now be stored in a small metal box 15 centimetres in diameter and 2.5 centimetres deep. The roll contains 5,000 exposures. Each of these exposures can be projected on a screen which can be as large as 16 square metres. This small box, therefore, contains in the form of a minuscule volume the wherewithal to project at will and repeatedly 80,000 square metres of photographic documents. (Goldschmidt and Otlet, 1990a [1906], p. 93)

Vocoder

Ecriture et lecture directe. — Transformation méchanique de la parole en écriture lisible et inversement de l’écriture en parole. (Suggestion: se baser sur une écriture phonétique, photographie d’une part, gramaphone d’autre part. Transformer les inscriptions sur les disques en lettres et les lettres en sons.) (Otlet, 1934, p. 390)

Selecting machines
One has even gone further still, and from the example of statistical machines like those in use at the Census of Washington, extrapolated the principle of “selection machines” which perform mechanical searches in enormous masses of materials, the machines retaining from the thousands of cards processed by them only those related to the question asked. (Otlet, 1990f [1918], p. 150)

Télélecture. — Comme application particulière de la télévision. 1° Donner des textes en lecture à distance. 2° Permettre à chacun par un dispositif approprié de prendre connaissance à distance des textes publiquement exposés à cet effet. (Otlet, 1934, p. 390)

Possibilités avec les machines à selectionner dites machines à statistiquer (Hollerith, Power) de rechercher les possibilités suivantes: [...] Disposer au moins de la possibilité d’écrire lisiblement à la main sur la fiche toutes les indications caractéristiques utiles. (Otlet, 1934, p. 390)

The memex

Ici la Table de Travail n’est plus chargée d’aucun livre. A leur place se dresse un écran et à portée un téléphone. [...] on fait apparaître sur l’écran la page à lire [...] Un écran serait double, quadruple ou décuple s’il s’agissait de multiplier les textes et les documents à confronter simultanément (Otlet, 1934, p. 428)
Nous devons avoir un complexe de machines associées qui réalise simultanément ou à la suite les opérations suivantes: 1° transformation du son en écriture; 2° multiplication de cette écriture tel nombre de fois qu’il est utile; 3° établissement des documents de manière que chaque donnée ait son individualité propre et dans ses relations avec celles de tout l’ensemble, qu’elle y soit rappelée là où il est nécessaire; 4° index de classement attaché à chaque donnée; perforation du document en corrélation avec ses indices; 5° classement automatique de ces documents et mise en place dans les classeurs; 6° récupération automatique des documents à consulter et présentation, soit sous les yeux ou sous la partie d’une machine ayant à y faire des inscriptions additionelles; 7° manipulation mécanique à volonté de toutes les données enregistrées pour obtenir de nouvelles combinaisons de faits, de nouveaux rapports d’idées, de nouvelles opérations à l’aide des chiffres. (Otlet, 1934, p. 391)

On top of that, Otlet proposed a list of ‘inventions à faire’ containing a procedure to print separate pages en masse without having to run a sheet of paper through a printing press and fold them in quires (digital printer?), a machine to speed up writing by suggesting phrases when writing words, a machine or method to speed up reading or to extract the contents of a text, selection machines that work with normal paper, machines that enable reading at a distance, for example books from a library (télélecteur), machines that enable writing from a distance (téléscription), and a translation machine that produces ‘subtitles’ in different languages in real time to an oral lecture or speech.

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