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.

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
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.

    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'