In the late 1930s, as humans managed to launch yet another war that would fail to end all wars, H.G. Wells wrote a series of essays laying out a plan for a better world. Wells, a novelist, reformer and sometime historian, believed that technology could connect people in ways that had never before been possible, joining them in a network and uniting their wisdom into a kind of synaptic and singular mind. The structure Wells imagined would be, he declared, “a sort of mental clearinghouse for the mind, a depot where knowledge and ideas are received, sorted, summarized, digested, clarified, and compared.”
Wells’s “World Brain” would, sadly, remain unrealized in his lifetime. But the World Wide Web, built decades later on the foundations of the military-industrial Internet, was created for the express purpose of sharing ideas and connecting people around them—for building, essentially, a global mind of the sort envisioned by Wells. The web has since been organized (and, in some sense, humanized) by search engines operating under the assumption that information is, fundamentally, a means of connection.
Today, thanks to Google, the most dominant of those engines, we have a tool that taps into humanity’s hive mind better than anything Wells could have imagined. We have snapshots of the information people seek when there’s no barrier between them and their curiosity save for an open field and a flashing cursor. We have … Autocomplete.