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
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone