17 June 2008

Interlinking links

It turns out that the internet was neither invented by Al Gore, nor first developed in the 90s by a crack international team of programmers, but was dreamed up in 1934, right here in Belgium.

Today's New York Times contains a fascinating account of Paul Otlet, a Belgian librarian who conceived of a vast interlinked network of information, which one could access through a screen. From one's desk, one would summon text, images, audio, and film, and the screen could be divided into multiple "pages" to view documents simultaneously. This "bibliothèque irradiée" (radiated library) would serve to make humanity's thoughts available to all. He called his central storehouse of knowledge the Mundaneum, and today one can visit the Mundaneum in its incarnation as a museum in Mons, Belgium. Which I will have to do one of these days.

As I read the article, from my screen with its multiple pages, which came from a link in my electronic mailbox, and watched video within the newspaper article, and then googled a snippet of French from a visual of one of Otlet's manuscripts that I had glimpsed at the end of the video, and then read more articles about the same subject, I was floored all over again by the mere existence of the web, and its vast complexity. (And was all the more impressed by Otlet's prescience.) Even in the misery of an information crisis, the breakdown of my hard drive, the interconnectedness of digital knowledge is pretty mind-blowing.

Then again, there's of course something to be said for the tactile, the hands-on, the ink-and-paper world of knowledge. As a book lover, both of the world of language they contain and of the bound pages that form a beautiful object, I can't forget the generous sense of discovery afforded by the physical archive. There's a lot out there that's not online. In that spirit, a short editorial laments the disappearance of the copy editor's position in journalism.

Also, speaking of text and tactile, here's a charming story about an architect who designed an apartment as a chamber of secrets. The owners, after a year of living in the house, were sent a clue that sent them on a treasure hunt in their own home, in part directed by a book of stories that they soon found behind a false wall. Hidden panels, complex word games, cranks, keys, puzzles...I love how the physical space and the materials of the home's construction were fitted together in new ways to send them on a journey. Even better: the final "reveal" of the whole elaborate game is a poem written by the father and hidden in the walls of the family room, right under their noses the whole time.

And speaking of homes: this weekend we're making the "move" to Barcelona. As of Friday, I'll be done with French (oral exam was today), and will have sung in my final choir concert (we're premiering a new work, at the Cathedral). So off to Barcelona we go, in a summer experiment to transition our lives from based-in-Brussels to based-in-Barcelona. The Mister will still be in Brussels Monday pm-Thursday am, and I might come along from time to time. Hard to tell how it will all pan out. Of course I have not done any "packing" whatsoever, and have barely had time to contemplate what I should do to prepare for such a (semi-)move. I have no doubt that the transition will be slow and that bits and pieces of my life will remain in between the two places for quite a long time. I know it's the right decision, though, because the thought of leaving Belgium isn't at all making me mournful (yet?). I will miss choir, and the few good friends we've made here, and the swimming pool across the street. And I'll definitely miss my spacious kitchen and the living room that we've only just managed to furnish how we wanted it.

But in Barcelona there's an empty bookshelf, waiting for us to fill it with our beloved books. I know that then we'll feel like we're really settling in, building our own secrets into the walls.

No comments: