The Web Time Forgot

MONS, Belgium — On a fog-drizzled Monday afternoon, this fading
medieval city feels like a forgotten place. Apart from the obligatory
Gothic cathedral, there is not much to see here except for a tiny
storefront museum called the Mundaneum, tucked down a narrow street in
the northeast corner of town. It feels like a fittingly secluded home
for the legacy of one of technology’s lost pioneers: Paul Otlet.

In 1934, Otlet sketched out plans for a global network of computers (or
“electric telescopes,” as he called them) that would allow
people to search and browse through millions of interlinked documents,
images, audio and video files. He described how people would use the
devices to send messages to one another, share files and even
congregate in online social networks. He called the whole thing a
“réseau,” which might be translated as
“network” — or arguably, “web.”

Historians typically trace the origins of the World Wide Web through
a lineage of Anglo-American inventors like Vannevar Bush, Doug
Engelbart and Ted Nelson. But more than half a century before Tim
Berners-Lee released the first Web browser in 1991, Otlet (pronounced
ot-LAY) described a networked world where “anyone in his armchair
would be able to contemplate the whole of creation.”

Otlet’s proto-Web relied on a patchwork of analog technologies
like index cards and telegraph machines, it nonetheless anticipated the
hyperlinked structure of today’s Web. “This was a Steampunk
version of hypertext,” said Kevin Kelly, former editor of Wired,
who is writing a book about the future of technology.

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