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February 19, 1997|
The current print edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica has a guiding principle that is both beguiling and maddening in its simplicity: its editors have worked to provide "an orderly topical outline of the whole of human knowledge, in the form of the circle of learning that is an en-cyclo-paedia." Though metaphysically alluring, the beauty of this conception is generally lost on practical users of the Britannica, who must by necessity think in linear terms as they consult the encyclopedia's ponderous and alphabetically arranged volumes.
That limitation will soon be a thing of the past: the Britannica in its entirety (Propaedia, Micropaedia, Macropaedia and hundreds of new entries not contained in any print edition) is available at Britannica Online. Here the circle-of-learning metaphor really works: each powerful search done on the site creates a new center of information out of which all other knowledge radiates. The Britannica, one has to conclude, was made for the digital age.
Vast and labyrinthine, Britannica Online is as mind-bogglingly suggestive as, say, a story by Jorge Luis Borges -- and indeed the site is cause, as is Borges's fictional Library of Babel, for both "extravagant happiness" and "excessive depression." All of the Britannica's collected knowledge resides on a single Web site. That one site can of course be included as a mere link on a more comprehensive site (of all encyclopedias, for example, in all languages), which itself can be subsumed into a knowledge base even larger, and on and on . . . until finally one arrives at the Web Site of All Knowledge -- which, like Borges's Library, is nothing less than the unlimited and circular universe, whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is unknowable.
Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.