You cannot hold the world in the palm of your hand

Encyclopaedias and dictionaries on CD-Rom are indeed marvellous, writes Andrew Brown. But they will not make us masters of the universe. Information is useless without a framework of meaning

How big should an encyclopaedia be? The one I have in front of me is a hand's span across and weighs around a quarter of an ounce. The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has just been issued on CD-Rom, like every other serious reference work these days, and though you can still buy the 10-volume paper edition for pounds 1600, the CD will only be another pounds 200 or so and it contains every word of the full encyclopaedia, laid out in ways that make it easier to navigate than paper. It is on my desk as I write, along with CD-Rom editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the Dictionary of National Biography: all fit onto a computer about the size and weight of the compact edition of the OED. At this rate, you could soon fit the entire library of Alexandria into a single jukebox drive.

Add in my access to the Internet, and through that to the catalogue of the Cambridge University Library up the road, and it seems that I can find any information I need as quickly as I can think of it. There are moments when it seems that the whole world has been turned into one vast digitised encyclopaedia by the information revolution. There are no longer serious limits to the amount of information which can be stored and retrieved. If CD-Roms prove too small there will be newer, yet more gigantic storage media.

If these prove too small, then there are already whole libraries available across the Internet; every poem ever written in English before 1900; 1000 years of medieval civilisation in the Patrologiae Latinae. Soon there will be more: complete editions of Hansard from the beginning; everything ever printed in this country in the 19th century; the archives of the KGB. All of them will be stored in microscopic laser-cut pits on slivers of aluminium: the human eye sees nothing there but a slightly dulled mirror which, as I turn it, shows sudden prismatic flares like straightened, vivid rainbows.

This dazzling blankness is one reason to be suspicious of the idea of "information". The term comes from computer science, where it has a fairly precise meaning. A compact disc, say the computerate, holds about 460 times as much information as a floppy. The hard drive on my ancient laptop holds a third as much information as a compact disc. But in what sense are these statements true? Looking around this room I can see an extraordinary variety of compact discs. One holds the complete works of Cannon's Jug Stompers. Does it contain the same amount of information as the Encyclopaedia Britannica, as the video disc of The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (which I have never managed to make play) or as is contained in two Beethoven piano sonatas? And how could any of these be compared with the English Poetry CDs from Chadwyck Healey, or they with the Duke Nukem 3D Platinum Edition? In another rack, one disc containing 21 Bible translations nestles against the catechism of the Catholic Church.

Here is all the knowledge necessary for salvation. But it isn't information. In fact none of these discs are worthwhile for the "information" they contain, any more than animals are valuable for their genes. DNA can also be understood as a sequence of numbers; in human DNA there are about 3.5 billion of them. This is close enough to the number of holes on a compact disc: in the library of the future you could fit each reader in among the CD-Roms he reads. I put this idea to show its absurdity, though it is one of the most influential myths around. People who would reject the idea of an immortal soul as a religious superstition treasure the hope that they are really software which just happens to be running on fleshy machines but whose nature is to be immortal and capable of running on anything. What's more, they regard this hope as scientific.

The point is not just that human beings aren't software, though we aren't. It's that software isn't software either in that sense. It's all embodied and what it contains is not information, but meaning. The limitless mind of God - should it exist - may be able to apprehend the world as pure information. But all mortal or created beings see the world in the light of their limited purposes. Without a common web of purpose binding the reader and the writer we might as well use all these CDs as bird-scarers - when of course, they convey an urgent message to the birds they frighten. This reflection suggests an answer to the question I first started with: how big can an encyclopaedia be? The answer is that the size has nothing to do with physical limits, nor even with the number of facts inside it. It is constrained by tone and by indexing. The word itself brings this to light, for the root of it is the Greek idea of "a circle of arts and sciences essential to a liberal education."

Circles may spread. An encyclical letter is meant to cover the whole round world. But they are essentially harmonious. There is a concord within them. The differing arts and sciences must fit reasonably well together: they must also be presented to the same sort of reader in the same kind of tone. So the boundaries of a library are not set by technology but by the human labours of the indexers and the compilers and even the writers. This is not a matter of information leaping from one form of hardware to another, but of the slow organic growth of culture making sense and giving meaning. Bigger will almost always mean worse, even when it comes in a smaller package. The value of an encyclopaedia is determined as much by what it excludes as by what it contains. The reason that the Routledge Encyclopaedia is worthwhile is that it shuts out billions of words of bad or confused philosophy and contains only a few million words of scrupulous lucidity - or so I hope. I haven't, of course, got round to reading it yet.

Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?