According to my Kindle Reader I am only 18% into Alex Wright’s Cataloging The World: Paul Otlet and the Birth of the Information Age. But I am all in.

As a precedent to Vannevar Bush, Belgian information organizer Otlet is credited with envisioning many of the technologies and ideas behind this internet thing I am pushing stuff into. The Mondedeum lives… on the web.

I’m quite mesmerized by the placing Wright does in a time right before 1900 when technology offered promise to change the world, to break down international barriers, to equalize what was not equal, to envision a “postivist” view of the world. All of these came to bear on the world, apparently, at the 1900 Exposition Universelle (Worlds Fair) in Paris.

Now, a new internationalist movement, coupled with– and enabled by– new communications technologies and a spirit of cultural progress, imbued many learned Europeans with a new way of thinking about world affairs, one less rooted in traditional national concerns and more concerned with building a futuristic, postnationalist global society.

Which century was this? What communication technologies?

There is even media puffery like the French Minister of Commerce who remarked “Machinery has become the queen of the world.”

Wright does point out the shortcomings of the idealistic visions, rooted in a European society looking down their positions wrestling with “the Africa problem”. But again, 1900 was an era of optimism for what technology could do for society, education, culture, academia.

Most of which eventually dissolved by nationalism and two World Wars.

I wonder, are we in a flavor now of a 2015 “Exposition Universelle” of the internet? Let’s leave that for another gloomy day.

Otlet’s ideas were informed by efforts to categorize the world of information, to create classification systems. He was among others trying to build a solution to an explosion of information, starting with tearing up books and organizing them on cards with an indexing system.

Otlet embraced the index card as the superior vehicle of information technology.

That triggers for me my own metaphor for some experience within the last year being part of the Federated Wiki “Happenings” organized by Mike Caulfield and Ward Cunningham. I felt like what we were doing was Federated Index Cards.

And this leads me to what Mike hinted at in a recent post which is mostly about the (nifty) new feature of “rosters” in Federated Wikis. But at the close he adds:

I want to start the next happening as soon as possible. Here’s what it is going to be about.

We’re going to test this roster functionality by setting up “pods”. Pods will form around a task or research question — for instance, you could structure a pod around the task of improving the Wikipedia coverage of Mario Bava, or increasing the quality of articles on the world’s oceans, or something non-wikipedia like compiling every piece of information about where the “Images are processed 60,000 times as fast as text” myth comes from.

You put together your set of people you want working on this, and build a roster you share out to the others. And then you start to build out your knowledge in that weird federated wiki way, where things start to link together in ways you had not imagined. When the time is up, you consolidate your work — moving things into wikipedia, sharing as a more “normal” looking wiki, publishing your results or whatever.

Is Mike baiting the hook with the 60,000 times after claim I have been barking about? I bit. I DM-ed him to see what I was thinking and within 30 minutes were talking in

So tentatively I will try and lead a short foray with the Federated Wiki to flesh out not only the “is there a real source” to the claim, but also to dig more into this idea of such things that sound true but are somewhere in the shy side of truthiness. This might take place in August (depending on the pile of other things I have committed to despite by real wish to have a month off).

If you are interested in being part of a small group that will dig into some research and use the FedWiki, let me know, whether you have experience with it or not. I am just putting this out early as an idea, not even sure if it will play out. It sounds like a fun way to dig more into the claim and the claimers.

Hopefully by then I will finish this book on Paul Otlet (plus the other 19 unfinished ones in my Kindle app).

Top / Featured Image Credit: Created with Blyberg Card Catalog Generator

Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. Hi Alan,
    I’d be interested.
    My experience with Federated Wiki very limited to the occasional solo hour kicking tires on reclaim and a dimly recalled local install.

  2. Alan,
    I have an idea for a pod that I’m working on with Lisa Chamberlin. We’re thinking of being co-pod leaders. I’m going to have extra time in August. No reason why I can’t try to be a pod co-leader and a pod co-follower. Does that work? Whatever, hopefully you know what I mean. In short, I’m interested! Love the idea.

      1. That’s an excellent question, really! Lisa and I tried to get together an idea for a faculty learning community grant in WA state to create a network for our adjuncts. We have a consortium of 34 schools, and our adjuncts typically work at two or more schools within the system. If we can’t burn down that exploitative labor practice, we’d at least like to make things better for them. Somehow. Here’s our nascent idea

        I couldn’t commit to a year-long project for this upcoming school year so we put the idea on ice. With the talk of the pod roster feature, I’m now thinking we can give this idea a shot for folks interested in creating something useful for adjunct professional development. What that looks like, I don’t know. I’ve got a couple of questions, some sources, and an idea for a start. I also think I have a few folks I can convince to fork my pages. That’s a fedwiki start in my book. In my neighborhood. In my pod. Whatever we call it. Just sounds fun in the after hours workaday:)

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