Like Wikipedia, but before
This is how the emerging internet is described in The Axemaker’s Gift, published in 1995. Interesting sections to me highlighted by me:
The new systems can present data to the user in the form of a “web” on which all the information contained in a database is interlinked. For example, a simple chain of web data-links might go: “toilet roll, invented in response to sanitation ceramics, resulting from nineteenth-century sewage developments, triggered by a cholera epidemic, whose social effects generated public health legislation, that established pathology labs, able to function clue to tissue-staining techniques, that used aniline dyes, discovered during a search for artiﬁcial quinine, in coal-tar that was a by-product of the manufacture of gaslight, that illuminated early workers’ evening classes, in factories spinning cotton from America, processed by Eli Whitney’s gin, after he developed interchangeable musket parts, that made possible the manufacture of machine tools, for production lines that introduced continuous-process techniques, that one day would make toilet rolls.”
Any individual link in this loop of related innovations and events could also provide the start-point for other loops, in which any link could initiate yet other loops and so on.
There are two main attractions to this way of accessing information. First, it is easy to operate because the user can join the web at an entry point matching their level of knowledge and which might therefore might be something as complex as a quantum physics equation or as simple as a toilet roll. Second is the interconnected nature of the web that makes it possible to move from the entry point to anywhere else on the web by a large choice of routes, one of which will best suit the user’s own idiosyncratic interests and level of ability.
At each stage of the journey, any link prepares the user for the next link because of the way in which all links relate. Also, at any link there are a number of alternate routes to take, and it is here that the user can make choices based on personal interest or experience. So it is not inconceivable that a journey might begin with the toilet roll and eventually lead to all the data required for understanding quantum physics, or pottery making, or medieval Latin.
Since there would be no “correct” way to arrive at target data designated, say, by curriculum needs, in the kind of educational process that the web might make possible, the web would offer the user a means to “learn” the target information by arriving at it in their own way. “Knowledge” would then be the experience of having traveled on the web, like the knowledge of a city’s streets. The journey, therefore, would be more valuable than the destination and relationships between data more valuable than the data. It might be that we would eventually come to value intelligence no longer solely by information-retrieval but by the imaginative way a student constructed such a journey.
The attraction of the web is that the user needs no qualiﬁcations to enter, and the process of exploring the web is as easy or complex as the user chooses. The web contains the sum of knowledge, so the experience of a journey ﬁnks every user in some way to every other user. The number of ways in which a web might be accessed, linked, or restructured could be as many as its users decided.
Use of the web would above all accustom people to become gradually more familiar with the way in which knowledge is not made up of isolated, unconnected “facts,” but is part of a dynamic whole. Experience on the web might also bring greater awareness of the social effects of the introduction of any innovation, thanks to the way the result of interrelating data on the web mirrored that of the way innovation affected the community at large. So each time a user journeyed on the web and made new links between data, the new connections would restructure the web in much the same way they might have rearranged society if they had been applied in real terms. In this sense, the web could become a microcosm for society itself. It could serve as a means to play out scenarios for knowledge manufacture and its potential social effects. Eventually, of course, the web might become the general mode of involvement in all social processes, either in person or through the use of personal electronic “agents.” **The power of the individual is greatly magnified. **