un écrivain britannique surtout connu aujourd’hui pour ses romans de science-fiction. Il fut cependant également l’auteur de nombreux romans de satire sociale, d’œuvres de prospective, de réflexions politiques et sociales ainsi que d’ouvrages de vulgarisation touchant aussi bien à la biologie, à l’histoire qu’aux questions sociales.
J’ai eu la chance de participer récemment à une table ronde suite à la projection d’un documentaire intitulé Google and the World Brain au Festival des films sur l’art. Ledit documentaire se basait sur un essai de HG Wells intitulé The World Brain où l’auteur britannique proposait la constitution d’une encyclopédie mondiale afin d’émanciper l’humanité de l’ignorance.
Et, en 1936, le penseur britannique avait dit ceci: “A greater danger, as I have already suggested, will come from attempts at the private mercenary exploitation of this world-wide need — the raids of popular publishers and heavily financed salesmen, and in particular attempts to create copyright difficulties and so to corner the services and prestige of this or that unwary eminent person by anticipatory agreements”
C’est drôle, cette histoire me fair penser à l’état actuel de l’édition académique, où des sociétés privées s’accaparent les savoirs des universités afin de les revendre à fort prix à certains intervenants fortunés…
Je tiens à remercier l’Université d’Adélade en Australie qui offre gratuidement des versions numérisées des livres de HG Wells. Voici le passage auquel je fais référence, les deux seules fois que Wells fait mention du mot copyright dans son livre intitulé World Brain:
Can such an Encyclopaedia as I have been suggesting to you be a possible thing? How can it be set going? How can it be organised and paid for?
I agree I have now to show it is a possible thing. For I am going to make the large assumption that you think that it is a possible thing it is a desirable thing. How are we to set about it?
I think something in this way: To begin with we want a Promotion Organisation. We want, shall I call it, an Encyclopaedia Society to ask for an Encyclopaedia and get as many people as possible asking for an Encyclopaedia. Directly that Society asks for an Encyclopaedia it will probably have to resort to precautionary measures against any enterprising publisher who may see in that demand a chance for selling some sort of vamped-up miscellany as the thing required, and who may even trust to the unworldliness of learned men for some sort of countenance for his raid.
And next this society of promoters will have to survey the available material. For most of the material for a modern Encyclopaedia exists already — though in a state of impotent diffusion. In all the various departments with which an Encyclopaedia should deal, groups of authoritative men might be induced to prepare a comprehensive list of primary and leading books, articles, statements which taken together would give the best, clearest and most quintessential renderings of what is known and thought within their departments. This would make a sort of key bibliography to the thoughts and knowledge of the world. My friend Sir Richard Gregory has suggested that such a key bibliography for a World Encyclopaedia would in itself. be a worthwhile thing to evoke. I agree with him. I haven’t an idea what we should get. I imagine something on the scale of ten or twenty thousand items. I don’t know.
Possibly our Encyclopaedia Society would find that such a key bibliography was in itself a not unprofitable publication, but that is a comment by the way. The next step from this key bibliography would be the organisation of a general editorial board and of departmental boards. These would be permanent bodies — for a World Encyclopaedia must have a perennial life. We should have to secure premises, engage a literary staff and, with the constant co-operation of the departmental groups, set about the task of making our great synthesis and abstract. I must repeat that for the purposes of a World Encyclopaedia probably we would not want much original writing. If a thing has been stated clearly and compactly once for all, why paraphrase it or ask some inferior hand to restate it? Our job may be rather to secure the use of copyrights, and induce leading exponents of this or that field of science or criticism to co-operate in the selection, condensation, expansion or simplification of what they have already said so well.
And now I will ask you to take another step forward and imagine our World Encyclopaedia has been assembled and digested and that the first edition is through the press. So far we shall have been spending money on this great enterprise and receiving nothing; we shall have been spending capital, for which I have at present not accounted. I will merely say that I see no reason why the capital needed for these promotion activities should not be forthcoming. This is no gainful enterprise, but you have to remember that the values we should create would be far more stable than the ephemeral encyclopaedias representing sums round about a million pounds or so which have hitherto been the high-water of Encyclopaedic enterprise. These were essentially book-selling enterprises made to exploit a demand. But this World Encyclopaedia as I conceive it, if only because it will have roped in the larger part of the original sources of exposition, discussion and information, will be in effect a world monopoly, and it will be able to levy and distribute direct and indirect revenue, on a scale quite beyond the resources of any private publishing enterprise. I do not see that the financial aspects of this huge enterprise, big though the sums involved may be, present any insurmountable difficulties in the way of its realisation. The major difficulty will be to persuade the extremely various preoccupied, impatient and individualistic scholars, thinkers, scientific workers and merely distinguished but unavoidable men on whose participation its success depends, of its practicability, convenience and desirability. And so far as the promotion of it goes I am reasonably hopeful. Quite a few convinced, energetic and resourceful people could set this ball rolling towards realisation. To begin with it is not necessary to convert the whole world of learning, research and teaching. I see no reason why at any stage it should encounter such positive opposition. Negative opposition — the refusal to have anything to do with it and so forth-can be worn down by persistence and the gathering promise of success. It has not to fight adversaries or win majorities before it gets going. And once this ball is fairly set rolling it will be very hard to stop. A greater danger, as I have already suggested, will come from attempts at the private mercenary exploitation of this world-wide need — the raids of popular publishers and heavily financed salesmen, and in particular attempts to create copyright difficulties and so to corner the services and prestige of this or that unwary eminent person by anticipatory agreements.
Vis-à-vis with salesmanship the man of science, the man of the intellectual élite, is a t to show himself a very Simple Simon indeed. And) of course from the very start, various opinionated cults and propagandists will be doing their best to capture or buy the movement. Well, we mustn’t be captured or bought, and in particular our silence must not be bought or captured. That danger may in the end prove to be a stimulus. It may be possible in some cases to digest and assimilate special cults to their own and the general advantage.
And there will be a constant danger that some of the early promoters may feel and attempt to realise a sort of proprietorship in the organisation, to make a group or a gang of it. But to recognise that danger is half-way to averting it.