Project Gutenberg

My first real encounter with the internet as a revolutionary publication tool happened when I was in high school, during a history class. My teacher was a specialist of religious history, trained in Latin and Greek, and was telling us how important the internet could be for the future of classics, that in America, universities were digitalising the whole Greek and Latin corpus – and how it would, or could, save these texts from oblivion. I also remember a name  ‘Project Gutenberg

Later, in my undergraduate years, when I was studying English, philosophy and classics, I often went to the project gutenberg page, looking for originals of Plato, Aeschylus, Aristotle. Or the Bible. At the ecole Normale, where I was studying, the Department most thrilled by the internet, apart from IT, was Classics. A guy in my year had written a programme that automatically generated Latin verse. Others were doing revolutionary research on the history of concepts, searching all occurrences of a word from Homer to

Whenever I hear one of these trite debates about the internet, and how writers should get paid for the content they create, I think back on these formative encounters, and doubt. The internet started as a wonderful library, gathering the memory of the world. A new Alexandria. For me, it started as a multilingual utopia, where the memory of the world all came to the one place, and was accessible at one click. The internet meant I didn’t have to go to that annoying woman in the library – or spend a lot of money – to read some obscure Greek poem about volcanoes erupting; or erotic Latin verse.

I haven’t read Greek or Latin for a while, but my relationship to the internet has been forever coloured by this early vision. It is a repository for the world’s memory. I know it’s very 1.0. I know we’ve had facebook, and twitter, and youtube, since. But I think, in a weird form of dialectics, that 3.0 will take us back to that initial vision of Project Gutenberg. Wikipedia is already there: a huge semantic web, accessible in multiple languages, that aggregates all the knowledge of the world. A super-memory, with hyperlinks connecting parts in unsuspected, surprising ways. And your web identity’s nothing more than the sum of links you aggregate?

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