Cosmopedia: Tomorrow's World of Learning; Libraries, Universities, and Encyclopedias Have Long Tried to Collect and Organize All Human Knowledge. This Ancient Dream Is Finally Becoming a Reality. but What's Yet to Come May Be More Exciting Still

Article excerpt

No one yet knows for certain what the impact of powerful new computer technologies will be across the next two or three decades, but I suspect that all of us are in for great surprises. One surprise, with enormous consequences for education and much more, is likely to be a global computer-based information resource available to all: the Cosmopedia.

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In an article entitled "The Coming Great Electronic Encyclopedia" (THE FUTURIST, August 1982), I suggested that information-age technology would gradually link online all reference books, specialized encyclopedias, atlases, lexicons, dictionaries, and other scholarly material. The ultimate result would be what I then called the "Global Comprehensive Electronic Encyclopedia."

It now appears that this 1982 vision was very limited. The term encyclopedia refers only to printed illustrations and text. A new word is needed to describe the comprehensive weaving together of knowledge in all its forms. These forms include animated graphics, motion pictures, music, sound recordings, and probably other new media options we can not yet imagine. Technology consultant and author Pierre Levy has suggested the term Cosmopedia to describe the ideal universal information resource, and I propose to follow his suggestion.

What Is the Cosmopedia?

The ancient Greeks first envisioned the "comprehensive organization of all knowledge," and some of their dream came true. It began with writing--collecting oral wisdom and tradition in great manuscript collections like the ancient Library of Alexandria. Later, the Middle Ages saw the founding of universities, where masters of lore and rhetoric could gather in relative safety to extend and spread their knowledge among dedicated students by means of books and lectures. The invention of movable type and the subsequent spread of printing made information cheaper and more portable in the form of books, pamphlets, broadsides, and newspapers. Then the eighteenth century saw the first attempts to systematically assemble important technical and scientific information in uniform bound volumes as a universal printed reference or "encyclopedia."

Since the Industrial Revolution, ever-growing demand for knowledge has continued to push learning into new dimensions. Where speech and printed text were once enough to answer most questions satisfactorily, tomorrow's learning materials need to be diversified to include new media. For example, think how much we learn by viewing visual records and interpretations of historical figures--from news photos to political cartoons--and how audio tracks enhance our enjoyment and understanding of music or poetry.

At the turn of the twenty-first century, learners can watch a videotape or downloaded video files of a lecture or the demonstration of a technical procedure, then replay segments to help them master difficult material. This is especially useful for learning another language. Using the Cosmopedia, learners will be able to do even more.

In the Cosmopedia, every idea, old and new, becomes a Web link leading to related information and additional detail. Users can check the exact meaning of every word in a comprehensive dictionary, or have it automatically translated into another language or dialect.

The Cosmopedia will link museums, documents, writings, and research on every important figure in history. For example, one click on "Mark Twain" will lead a Cosmopedia user to all of that author's writings, as well as to all criticism, reviews, books about Twain's life; filmed "visits" to his home town; and practically everything else known about the man, his work, and his world. All this can be accomplished using technology that exists today--technology that continues to improve and expand exponentially.

Democratizing Expertise

This all sounds great, but who will actually perform the colossal labor involved in compiling and organizing the massive amounts of information, old and new? …