I do not think that there is an Encyclopedia Galactica, and that makes me sad..

I am a bookworm. There; I just dated myself and I do not care one bit. I am old enough to have experienced the “magic” of a physical library and I am as well the product of a time when to do school research meant to “hit the books” and physically look for any available information at your local town or school library. I am aware that my lament is in big part cultural. The same kind of feelings surely went through the minds of people transitioning from an oral tradition to written forms of information storage like clay tablets or scrolls. The same thing happened when humans transitioned from tablets and scrolls to the printed word and to those of us right in the middle of the transition from the printed word to the electronic word.

Anyway, physical libraries…

Sometimes, a “normal” library was not enough. If you needed specialized information on a topic, you had to go to specialized libraries like university or medical school libraries. Even then, any normal-sized library could contain only so much material, so the “interlibrary loan concept” was invented. You could borrow a book from another library. Also, if you needed a scientific article, this got a little more convoluted because you had to look in the published indexes of the scientific literature, look for the physical journal which may not be available at that particular library it and had to send for it etc., and so on. Furthermore, this only worked for English-speaking literature. If you needed to find a source written in other languages there was an extra layer of complexity…

Got tired from reading last paragraph? If so, I was able to convey the inherent “slowness” of how the process used to be. With that perspective I believe that you just gained a new appreciation of what we have now. Nowadays most information is just a click away.

But let’s go back to physical books for a moment. A traditional source of general information was the encyclopedia. Encyclopedias have been around for 2,000+ years. The main idea is to store a summary of all areas of knowledge, usually organized alphabetically. The word “encyclopedia” itself can be traced to (who else?) the Ancient Greeks and it roughly means “general knowledge” or “general education”. In earlier times, a single author could write the whole thing; philosophers tended to know about all general knowledge as it was understood at the time. In more recent times at least in the English-speaking world when you thought “encyclopedia” what you saw in your mind was some version of the Encyclopedia Britannica for example.

As intelligent science fiction developed it was inevitable that some kind of cosmic repository of knowledge in the form of an encyclopedia would be imagined byt a storyteller. The first example of this Encyclopedia Galactica (EG) seems to have come from the science fiction great, Isaac Asimov as part of his Foundation series. Another great (this one in science), Carl Sagan used the concept in his acclaimed series Cosmos, which by the way, it’s being remade into a brand-new series hosted by (the maybe great someday, but not quite yet in my opinion) Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is a great communicator like Sagan, but at this point Tyson has produced nowhere near the vast scientific output and original contributions to scientific knowledge (as opposed to books) that Sagan authored, but I digress.

The thing is that traditional encyclopedias are rarely used anymore. We of course, have the electronic world, therefore we must “rethink our thinking” if we insist on talking about an EG. It is only logical that in its modern incarnation, we start talking about a Galactic Internet (GI) instead of an EG.

It is very important to realize that the World Wide Web model is different from the encyclopedia model in a very important aspect. A traditional encyclopedia collects the current state of knowledge as provided by people that really know what they are talking about. Now, as we are all painfully aware of, the Internet is rather democratic and not in a good way. Anyone can post whatever they feel like without even knowing what they are talking about. This can be harmless, like posting a very much reasoned argument on why Kirk is better than Picard.

(See? To say that Kirk is better than Picard is a horrible, horrible mistake but it hardly harms anyone)

On the other hand, wrong information in say, science, technology or medicine can undoubtedly cause harm or worse. The tricky part is to figure out whether any web-derived information is true or not-so-true. So you see the problem; instead of an EG that works as a repository of galactic knowledge we could get the Galactic Wide Web (GWW), where anything could go. How can we determine what information from the GWW is correct or even at all true?

There is a second reason why I feel less than optimistic that anything like the GWW exists. I am talking about the speed of light. Let’s suppose that you run a GWW search. Besides earth, the next planetary server would conceivably be at least 4 light years away. You know where I am going with this.

And you thought dialup was slow…

Then again, I an writing this from my limited perspective in terms of my current understanding of the universe and its laws. Some other kind of physics needs to be developed to even begin to imagine faster than light communication, let alone faster than light travel.

But at this point, we don’t know of anything of the sort, so again, I do not think that there is an Encyclopedia Galactica, and that makes me sad…


Picture Credit: http://terminuscity.tripod.com/eghome.html

You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.