The internet has made enormous strides towards visions of universal access to knowledge. This paper reviews progress and explores three subtle obstacles posed by emerging technologies, namely, social networks, adaptive interfaces and brain interfaces.
Encyclopaedic visions have existed since the earliest cultures. In Antiquity, the library at Alexandria strived to achieve this is in one building. The French philosophers of the 18th century attempted an abridged, portable version in the form of the Encyclopédie. In the 19th century, Pannini’s vision for the British Museum/Library inspired a new type of universal library. The early 20th century turned to a new vision that all knowledge might one day be online to create a global brain (Gehirn der Welt).1 It acquired various names: world brain, collective intelligence, collective memory, enduring knowledge, digital libraries.
When the Internet began in 1968 the rhetoric was universal communication: the practice was largely academic e-mail and military networks. During the 1980s when connections often began with a 200 baud modem, speed was an obstacle. Even so the Internet grew from 2 persons to 1 million users in 30 years. The advent of the WWW reopened the dreams of universal access. From 1990-2000 it expanded from 1 million to 200 million users. The vision of global access to knowledge returned but during this period lack of content was an obstacle and e-content became a mantra of the day. In the new millenium, major corporations and governments announced plans scan the full texts of up to 20 million books in a single project. Together the projects promised more than 60 million books.2 As always there were delays and redundancies in scanning the same book more than once. Yet, miraculously the great texts of the world are gradually coming on line, many free of direct cost to the user.