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World Brain cover

World Brain by H.G. Wells

(MIT Press, 2021)

Reviewed by Paul Graham Raven

As I began to draft this review, I read a newsletter with a section titled “Can the world computer save the world?”, excerpting three essays by a tenacious technologist (who I shall decline to name) which advance a hand-wringing “what went wrong?” critique of cryptocurrency in order to conclude that—shock, horror, &c.—the particular flavour of imaginary money they work with (and in which they are presumably well-supplied) is the One True Coin that can “out-perform current models of capitalism”. (The newsletter’s curator, to his credit, notes that this bit “goes a bit too ‘computers can do anything’ for me”, which may explain his header’s implicit invocation of Betteridge’s Law.)

A month earlier, I listened to the theorist Benjamin Bratton promoting his new book, The Revenge of the Real, in which he tilts at the mismanagement of the pandemic as a prelude to his thesis that this (and sundry other sins) can be pinned on the pernicious influence of postmodern social theory on systems of governance in the West/Global North, before concluding that the problem is not at all an over-reliance upon what until recently was touted as “Big Data”, but rather a refusal to fully commit to the technological prowess which emerges, like some rationally-explicable genie, from the global network of computation which (as he notes) enables our calculation and simulation of the manifestation of climate change, even as it also (as he notes not) contributes hugely to the carbon emissions which we know damned well are causing it.

I mention these two current examples of solutionism—a faith whose most fervent article is that we can innovate our way out of the consequences of previous failed attempts to innovate our way out of &c &c.—to illustrate that arguments taking the tenor of H.G. Wells’s gung-ho techno-optimism are as common today as they were in his time, if not more so. They also chime with Bruce Sterling’s foreword to this reissue of World Brain by MIT Press, in which he notes that the essays and speeches comprising this collection were driven by Wells’s dissatisfaction with publishing as a sociotechnical system at its time of first issue (1937, at which point, even without our historical hindsight, it was very easy to see big trouble coming down the pipe) and by his hopes for a “constructive sociology, the science of social organisation”. As Sterling points out, with his usual perspicacity, this was a way for Wells to drape a degree of academic prestige (ironic in one so critical of academia) over the burgeoning industry of “large-scale propaganda”, which was just then getting to grips with the affordances of radio and mass-market newsprint.

Sterling sums up Wells’s World Brain concept as “a comprehensive global system of media organisation, using centralised files, which are non-commercial, networked, free of copyright, and much distributed” (xii). He further notes that what we think of as networks and computing were not in Wells’s mind; they were yet to be forged in the cybernetic crucible of a conflict Wells hoped not to prevent, but to win decisively. Nonetheless, those parameters of information access are embarrassingly familiar to this shamed veteran of internet utopianism and could be spliced easily into the paeans of today’s blockchain prophets. At the core of them all, and of Bratton’s fantasy of a somehow pure-of-politics computational “stack”, is a fetish for an impossible Truth that will sweep ignorance and its children aside for good; per Sterling, the World Brain “is a comprehensive intellectual act of totalising modernism” (ibid).

In his recent literary biography of Wells, Adam Roberts wrestles (as politely as only Roberts could wrestle) with the less savoury sides of a writer he otherwise greatly admires—in particular, his antisemitism and advocacy for eugenics. This is not to make a scapegoat of Wells, who was no more (and maybe less) a eugenicist and racist than Huxley and others among his peers: histories of the period sometimes gloss over it, but Fabian leftism in Britain saw great potential in eugenics as a ‘solution’ to social problems—particularly that hardy perennial, the undeserving poor—and while the events of WW2 put (most of) those ‘solutions’ beyond the pale, similar attitudes to the poor and the unwise persist today. Nor am I attempting to draw some sort of damnation by analogy, in which I claim that blockchain advocates are somehow eugenicists by association—though it bears noting that some of the biggest Bitcoin backers are quite openly in favour of social cleansing, so long as it is performed by free markets rather than the state.

My point is historical, or rather epistemological: two eras with savage social, economic and political problems, in which great and privileged minds a-surf upon a wave of socioeconomic change saw, in technology, the solution of solutions—saw solutionism itself. It was arguably born around the same time as Wells—he was its brother, not its father—and they grew up together, but it was given room and board for many years after Wells passed by the science fiction that followed in his footsteps, and which has only recently turned it out on its ear.

Wells was no prophet, though he dearly wished to be one—and I suspect his motives for the World Brain were as sincere as anyone else’s could have been in those epistemological circumstances. But what World Brains and blockchains and ‘solutions’, final or otherwise, show us clearly (if we’re willing to look) is that beneath the philosophical floor of both Wells’s time and our own, there coils an unresolved contradiction that shapes all of our beliefs, be they on the left or on the right. The Janus-faced ghost of the Enlightenment—dragging the chains of those whose enslavement it justified, even as it tends the technologies that light and heat and feed us—still haunts our imaginations, still shapes what we believe is possible and right.

We’ve come a long way since Wells’s time, in many ways… but even so, we’ve hardly moved an inch.

Review from BSFA Review 16 - Download your copy here.

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