Since we cannot know all that is to be known about everything, we ought to know a little about everything,” said the French mathematician, physicist and thinker Blaise Pascal. A few centuries since then, the scope of everything has broadened substantially and one wonders whether Pascal would have repeated his words today. In 2010, Google estimated that there was about 300 exabytes of information on the internet. 300 exabytes, that is 300 followed by eight zeroes. All this information is at our fingertips, accessible at the tap of a button on phones which are smart, yet its users are not getting any smarter. A three part designation like that of Pascal’s can only be found on Twitter profiles of people being amusing by including things like “couch potating” as a professional experience.
In this Age of Misinformation, and some information, considering that much of the 300 exabytes of “everything” include photos of people’s breakfasts, cat videos, and pornographic material, we are more than ever before in need of a moderator that will deliver us what is important knowledge, while filtering the digital chaff.
Long before Wikipedia, to be precise in 77 AD, was written a manuscript that would subsequently be known as the prototype of the now quaint encyclopedia. Pliny the Elder’s Historia Naturalis was the first attempt at an encyclopediac work, containing anthologies on topics such as cosmography, metallurgy and botany. The idea, since the encyclopedia’s ancient inception, was to condense human knowledge and record what was known in a particular order. Early and medieval works of an encyclopediac nature were directed at a scholarly or upper class audience and often contained more biographical entries. Later, articles on science, technology, mathematics, geography were gradually included, culminating in the 18th century in two monumental works — the Frech Encyclopedie and the English Britannica.
In 2012, the encyclopedia Britannica ceased publication of its printed editions and went entirely digital. It sold 120,000 sets (each set comprising 32 volumes) in the USA in 1990. In 2010, its sales dropped to 8,000 sets in the same market. Encyclopedias never exactly thrived, they were restricted to some households that had the inclination to part with the money needed to buy these bulky resources, but there were sufficient takers. Its real demise began with its failure to keep up with a fast changing world, which , its arch enemy computer technology adapted to with ease. High printing costs made continual publishing of revised editions unviable. Finally, the internet on smart devices drove the last nail into the encyclopedia’s leather-bound coffin. At least in its printed form.
Michael Ross, Encylopaedia Britannica Inc.’s senior vice president and education general manager, told reporters that Britannica was an early adopter of digital technology, releasing a subscription website and its first CD-ROM edition in 1994.
In 1993, Microsoft started publishing the digital media encyclopedia called Encarta. It ran between 1993 and 2009, first as a CD-ROM, bundled with other Microsoft products, and then moved to the web, where it also published abridged versions of its articles for non-members. But Microsoft lost the race against free online reference materials and discontinued Encarta in 2009.
The year before that, in 1993, Microsoft started publishing the digital media encyclopedia called Encarta. It ran between 1993 and 2009, first as a CD-ROM, bundled with other Microsoft products, and then moved to the web, where it also published abridged versions of its articles for non-members. But Microsoft lost the race against free online reference materials and discontinued Encarta in 2009.
Britannica is a survivor as yet; its digital subscription profits have grown by approximately 15% per year since 2012, while its main customers remain schools and libraries.
Still, it is fighting a tough battle. Wikipedia is home to 5,049,406 articles, with 115,054 recent contributors, and 807,339,307 edits, and all of its content is available for free. Moreover, Wikipedia does so well due to the ease of access — we are all guilty of looking up things by a quick Google search on our devices which inevitably leads to a Wiki page where an oversimplified summary in a few lines feeds our knowledge. Its homepage reiterates its selling point: Wikipedia is made by people like you. Like me? That’s not very reassuring.
In the early-Eighties published Lexicon Universal Encyclopedia, the first several pages of the first volume are dedicated to all the editors, photographers, researchers, and contributors, all of whom are authorities in their field, who helped put the 21-volume set together. We never bought another updated Lexicon set — its world is frozen in 1989, when a Soviet Republic was still around and personal computer memory was measured in kilobytes — making it a bit of a relic just two decades later. But it gives a lucid account of its time, becoming a lesson in history, and a comprehensive guide on the basics in most modern subjects.
While the world gets tangled up in the wide web of opinions, masquerading as information, without an author for accountability, these encyclopedias offer a sanctuary and direction to a curious mind. There are gaps after years on the shelf in our study where these books stood dusty and neglected, but always upright, as though convinced in its scholarship and sense of authority.