From PC Techniques #27, June/July 1994


The All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything!



Face it, a hireling at an encyclopedia company cannot write about quail husbandry with the verve and nuttiness of someone to whom it is a total lifestyle obsession.

Crazy world, ain't it? Yes indeedy, and we let a lot of that craziness go completely to waste. A guy I know used to breed Japanese quail and sell pickled quail eggs for a dollar apiece to lonely Japanese expatriates on the West Coast. He knows a lot about Japanese quail. (For example: Put them in tall coops—loud noises make them jump straight up, with sufficient force to break their own necks on a low roof. One thunderstorm and your whole flock might have to be quick-frozen for TV dinners.) If you wanted to tap this ancient and venerable quail wisdom, where would you go?

Nowhere is where. The time you'd spend looking would probably be worth far more than the found knowledge, unless you were as quail-crazy as Don. But within our grasp (if we ever do get an Information Superhighway) will soon be the means to create an All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything, pickled quail eggs pointedly included.

Face it: A hireling at an encyclopedia company cannot write about quail husbandry with the verve and nuttiness of someone to whom it is a total lifestyle obsession. The same goes for topics like pre-World War II microwave power tubes, Pez dispensers of the Sixties, or the Peppermint Trolley Company and its Greatest Hit. So let's envision an NII node with a few spare gigabytes, and set up a master index to what may someday become the elucidation of All Human Knowledge.

Someone (and I volunteer) would write a style guide for encyclopedia entries. One can know too much about Pez dispensers; 2,000 words is probably enough. That done, word would go out on the Net of Nets: If you care passionately about something and consider yourself an expert, write it up, put it somewhere where it can be found, and mail that address to the Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia itself doesn't contain the entries, only an index line and where to do the ftp. If the NII is fast enough to handle teleconferencing and multimedia, it will be fast enough to do an ftp on a 2,000-word article in a couple of minutes or less.

The intellectual richness of the Internet-cum-NII community is mind-boggling, and will soon number in the tens of millions. If even a fraction of those people contribute an entry or two, the Encyclopedia will soon sport hundreds of thousands of entries, with ten or twenty thousand new ones coming in every year. Nor will all those be about the life and times of Edward VII, or the agricultural economy of Gambia. Most of them will be the sorts of things that simply can't be known anywhere else, which is precisely the sort of knowledge that dies with its owners, because its owners have no way to pass it on.

Organizations with gigabytes to spare might offer Encyclopedia-caching services; that is, they would ftp the most requested entries of interest to specialty audiences onto fast disk so that like-minded folks could browse it all in real-time. Astronomers might subscribe to one such cache, where Otto Struve would be present, and Edward VII absent, with Edward and his namefellows replacing Otto & Co. in a cache for Royalty weenies. You can browse the Bichon Frise online stud books in the Frise Rampant cache, along with biographies of every Bichon of note, including Mr. Byte—and if you still wanted to look up poor Edward, well, the cache would dutifully send for him, and cache him with the canines. If enough people asked for him, the least recently used (LRU) cache would simply make him a regular, whether he was a Bichon, owned one, or simply resembled one.

Guys like me, who read the dictionary for fun, would probably not find a cache of sufficient breadth to be satisfying. Hey, I'd wait a few minutes for the authorized history of the 829B power pentode, and while I was waiting, I'd simply read the life and times of Big Daddy Don Garlitz or catch up on the current state of instrumental transcommunication.

Quail you want? Quail we'll give you!

Author's note of 18 October 2016, more than 22 years later: We have achieved the All-Volunteer Virtual Encyclopedia of Absolutely Everything, and its name is Wikipedia. I wrote this piece in February, 1994. The Web was still in its infancy then, and I was thinking in terms of FTP and the National Information Infrastructure (NII), better known back then (though by now forgotten) as the Information Superhighway. Today we have HTTP and ubiquitous broadband. I'm hardly the first person to have imagined a globe-spanning encycopedia (H. G. Wells, of all people, described what he called the World Brain in 1937) but it's fun to see that something I had predicted came to pass more or less as I had hoped it would. Wikipedia has its problems, like a pathological obsession with petty rules on nebulous factors like "notability," but there are other ways to skin this cat, including InfoGalactic and DMOZ.