This post was written by Zachary Loeb, Ph.D. Student, Department of the History and Sociology of Science, University of Pennsylvania

Utopian ambitions have a pesky habit of going unrealized. Whether the project unravels, international support crumbles, or the visionary thinker dies – the shining island in the distance seems to remain fixed to the horizon no matter how furiously some race towards it. Though these failed utopian projects may seem little more than bizarre curios of a bygone age, their details still illuminate the past and help to explain some of the shadows looming over the present.

On February 23-25, 2017, the Beckman Center for the History of Chemistry at the Chemical Heritage Foundation and the University of Pennsylvania Libraries held a conference to consider the significance of such utopian ambitions appearing in late 19th and early 20th centuries up to the turbulent years between the two World Wars. The conference, entitled The Science of Information, 1870-1945: The Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian Age, provided a fascinating window into seven decades of internationalist endeavor to bring about world peace through various attempts to organize the world’s knowledge The organizers– Robert Fox (University of Oxford), Evan  Hepler Smith (Harvard University), and Lynn Ransom (University of Pennsylvania Libraries)–set out to bring scholars together to begin developing a collective understanding of the hodgepodge of familiar and strange utopian projects that characterized this eventful seventy-five years and shed new light on a pivotal aspect of the making of the modern world. The video proceedings of the conference are now available on the Penn Libraries’ YouTube channel here.

Hailing from different areas of academic specialization, the interdisciplinary group of scholars who assembled for the symposium presented material from a range of perspectives, which further demonstrated that the “universalization of knowledge” was not a goal limited to a single field. While the sixteen papers presented at the conference ranged over a variety of topics, places, and individuals – the common thread running through the projects being discussed was an earnest belief, on the part of those involved in the projects themselves, in the power of information as a uniting force. Such projects took many forms, including the construction of a National Union Catalog, the creation of Knowledge Cities, the standardization of chemical nomenclature, the invention of new languages, and other ambitious endeavors (for details, see the conference program and abstracts).

Looming large over the conference was the legacy of Paul Otlet. An early titan in the field of information science, Otlet occupied himself with responding to what he perceived as an explosion of information by attempting to put forth plans for how better to organize, and provide access to, the world’s information. Along with his close collaborator Henri La Fontaine, Otlet envisioned a link between peaceful democratic cooperation and universal access to information. The efforts undertaken by Otlet ranged in ambition from those that could be realized – such as the creation of classification schemes that were actually implemented – to the much more utopian goal of the establishment of “the Mundaneum” a World City wherein all of the world’s knowledge would be efficiently and effectively made available.

But, alas, if there is a shadow that loomed larger over the symposium than Otlet it is undoubtedly that of the world wars. As was made clear in many of the presentations, the First World War was the rock against which many projects that emphasized international cooperation were smashed. The late nineteenth century ideal of a world community of scientists united by a politically-disinterested commitment to the furtherance of knowledge broke down as scientists took up their nation’s banners in World War I. And though the League of Nations provided some individuals – including Otlet – with an occasion to rekindle their utopian ambitions, such dreams were only to run aground with the Second World War. Indeed, World War II saw information’s utopian sheen undergo a significant transformation as information gathering became a tool for furthering war aims, instead of as part of an internationalist ideal, while standardization of knowledge proved to be as useful for coordinating forced labor as for enabling international collaboration.

Though the timeframe under discussion at the symposium only went as far as 1945, the general themes being explored reveal the ways in which contemporary projects about universal access to information are actually part of a long lineage of similar projects. The Internet may be the utopian technology du jour, but there was a time when the exciting new technology was actually 3×5 index cards.

This symposium serves as a profound example of what could have been–a lively exchange about routes that were not taken–and posed the challenge as to whether or not providing access to information in and of itself solves the world’s compelling problems. The topics covered in the recorded talks presented here represent subjects that will be of interest not just to academics but to anyone who has performed a Google search thinking that they were searching all of the world’s knowledge. Indeed, one of the most important takeaways from the symposium is the way in which the very ideas of knowledge and information are themselves moving targets. The investigations into the political implications of various ideologies surrounding science and information helps to remind us that science and information are inextricably entangled with broader questions about power and politics. After all, the fact that the symposium was conducted in English rather than in a constructed language like Volapük, Esperanto, or Ido is itself a signal about the way in which the earnest utopian projects of yore become the curios of today.

Through exploring the projects of the past the papers presented at The Science of Information, 1870-1945: The Universalization of Knowledge in a Utopian Age provided us with a fresh way of making sense of the utopian projects of today.

The symposium was made possible by the generous support of University of Pennsylvania Libraries’ Thomas Sovereign Gates Library Lecture Fund, the Center for Global Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with the support of the US Department of Education Title VI grant, and The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.