How it all Began


When I was thirteen I had a dream. I saw clearly a machine that allowed one, not just me but everyone, to go through the world's culture and knowledge systematically. The year was 1961. It is true that my father had spoken of a brilliant uncle who had worked with computers in a Dutch bank in the Hague in the 1930's but even so the dream was unusual. I lived on a farm just outside of Toronto. I walked two and half miles two and from school each day. We had no television. On mornings when I was not going to school, we would listen to the local radio station, CFRB, to hear the eight o-clock news. I had a very primitive record player on which I listened to classical music. But ours was hardly a high-tech family.

I tried to be friendly at school but felt different from most of the children. They seemed interested only in playing. My ideas on just about everything were different. My parents made sure that I did a certain amount of chores so that I wouldn't be lazy. They also left me lots of free time and I was never bored. For me playing meant going on long hikes with my dog, Rover, a purebred miniature collie, and imagining encounters with Indians. I saw the cowboy and Indian shows such as the Lone Ranger on television at the homes of other children, but liked it for the adventure, rather than the killing. On my hikes I also imagined discovery.

At home I had three brothers and a sister but they were sufficiently different that I might almost have been an only child. When I was nine I remember painting my own bedroom, and carefully arranging everything, especially my books. I knew exactly where everything was and always used to amaze my mother, even after years of absence, in being able to call her up and ask her to pick out some book from precisely such and such a spot. Organization was important. I read a great deal. Learning was important.

This is not meant to be a biography, merely by way of explanation that when I had my dream at thirteen there was nothing in my environment, which particularly pre-disposed me to the frontiers of technological wizardry. From that standpoint, the setting was primitive. Father was so busy trying to escape his roots in the Netherlands that he often pretended we were primitive on other accounts also, but never very convincingly. Even so, given the circumstances, I felt there was no one with whom I could even think of talking about my dream. I was considered very different already and this would have made them dismiss me as weird, I reckoned, preferring to hope that they had not done so already. And so I kept my secret to myself as if it had been something as shameful as a dastardly murder done in the dead of night. I told no one. When I went to university I finally met two persons who became life long friends, Mary Lynn and John. We talked about many things. My friend, John, and I had long discussions about what we felt was the most important problem in the world. He thought it was population. I thought it was communication. It would take us some years to accept that both were vitally important. Yet, even with John, the dream was something taboo.


The incentive to re-awaken the dream came gradually through my studies. After a Bachelor's Degree (York) and a Master's Degree (Toronto) in History, I went to the Warburg Institute in London to work on the history of perspective. I had done an undergraduate thesis on concepts of perfection and infinity and was intrigued by claims that the Greek idea of perfection made them prefer tactile sensibility and therefore led them to prefer sculpture to painting. The continuation of this argument was that the Renaissance had developed a concept of infinity, which made them prefer visual sensibility and thus emphasize painting over sculpture. Since it takes eyes to see both sculpture and painting, I wanted to understand precisely what it meant to say that the Renaissance was more visual than Antiquity. In Toronto, one of my teachers, who had studied with Panofsky, kept insisting that Panofsky had already said everything that was worth saying about perspective and urged me to choose a topic that was a bit more serious. Emblems were offered as a candidate but I was not convinced. Fortunately, two professors were very encouraging: Natalie Davis and Stillman Drake. They arranged that I be sent to England with a Canada Council doctoral fellowship.

When I arrived in London I was fortunate that my teacher, A. I. Sabra, was very encouraging. So too was his colleague, the director of "the Institute" who became my teacher when Sabra left to take up a new professorship at Harvard. The new teacher, Sir Ernst Gombrich, was very interested in perspective, mainly from a psychological point of view. The artistic side he left to his friend B. A. R. (Sam) Carter, Professor of Perspective at the Slade and later at the Royal Academy. The scientific side he left to his student Robert A. Weale, who was then Director of Visual Science at the Institute for Ophthalmology. In the course of four years these teachers gave me the discipline and the courage to recognize clearly that there was quite a bit that Panofsky had not said.

Somehow word got round that I had such ideas. In 1975, just after finishing the doctorate, the American journal, Daedalus, was planning a special issue re-assessing the great art historians of the twentieth century and they approached me to "do" Panofsky. I was as horrified as I was honoured and was quick to tell them so, pointing out that the great Panofsky had hundreds of publications to his name on an astounding number of subjects, of which there was only really one on which I might have something worthwhile to say and this was not one of his major themes in the way that symbols, Dьrer or Netherlandish painting had been. Not to worry they said. They would be very happy for me to write on perspective. When I sent them my article, the first article in my life, they promptly wrote back to say it was much too complicated. Taken aback I went to Sir Ernst and asked his advice. He generously invited me to his home one evening and we sat for several hours scratching out all the difficult bits or so we thought. The Americans complained that it was still much too complicated. I told them that there was a level below which the quest for simplicity became a commitment to being simplistic and retracted the article.

The article was put up on a shelf and I was quite prepared for this to be the end of my short career when events began to unfold. In 1977, Professor Marisa Dalai Emiliani, with the guidance and inspiration of Professor Eugenio Battisti, organized the first world conference on perspective. She had somehow heard of this unpublished paper and decided to publish it as an appendix to the Acts of the congress. She had also heard positive comments concerning my thesis and therefore, after duly consulting with my mentors, and subjecting me to the usual oral exam, she invited me to prepare the bibliography for the conference. It was initially assumed that this would be a small appendix. Various experts (Professors Chastel, Edgerton, Maltese etc.), sent in their contributions. We then learned that Professor Luigi Vagnetti had been working 35 years on a bibliography so it was decided to wait until he published his work in 1979 before going to press. Shortly after that work appeared Professor Vagnetti invited me to visit him in Rome. He urged me to expand the scope of the bibliography by writing to libraries in Eastern Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa and South America. Some sixty five letters were initially sent to major libraries around the world. Of these sixty replied. Eventually contact was established with 180 libraries.

In the process more than six meters of file cards and six meters of xeroxes were collected. The file cards were arranged either alphabetically or chronologically. Inevitably I wanted to find something alphabetical in the chronological list and conversely. The need for multivalent access to information posed itself. In the course of the next five years (1979-1984) a coherent plan for dealing with these problems emerged.


Meanwhile, in 1981, thanks to the generosity of my friend, Dr. Rolf Gerling, I was invited to join him on a ninety day tour of the Mediterranean that took us through Spain, Southern France, by ship to Tunisia and onto Sicily, across Southern Italy, by ship to Patras, through Greece, the West and South coasts of Turkey and then back through Anatolia, Bulgaria, Jugoslavia and the Austrian Alps, ending on the shores of the Lake of Constance in Switzerland. This 19,000 km. journey brought into focus two fundamental conceptions of cultural history, namely, the need for recontextualization of reconstructions and the need for increasing the sample with respect to comparison.

Standing on the Acropolis, I looked at the Parthenon, the marble friezes of which were largely in the British Museum in London and had difficulty imagining how they fit together. Standing in front of the friezes in London some years earlier I had experienced the reverse side of this problem, trying to imagine how the friezes fit into the original building. In other cases there were related problems. In Sicily and in Turkey we often walked among ruins of what had once been great temples. In Tunisia we walked through ruins of Roman towns. But even with a guide book and a vivid imagination it was impossible to picture clearly what these monuments and towns of the past might have been like. It became obvious that one could not really understand the past without reconstructions. But these were often influenced by particular schools of thought. So the challenge arose of creating a system that would allow one to view multiple reconstructions, rather than merely presenting the fashion of the day as if it were the truth.

The word colosseum invariably conjures up a building in Rome. As we travelled I learned of some twenty six colosseums built in Roman times including ones in Arles (France) and El Djem (Tunisia). Since then I have learned that there are at least seventy well documented colosseums. To understand the characteristics and significance of colosseums it is essential to take all the examples into account. It became clear that in order to make valid claims we need to increase the sample, to look at all the particulars before making claims about the universals.

As Rolf drove the Range Rover, we discussed all these things amidst readings from the Penguin Atlas of World History and a small collection of guide-books. He thus became the first person to learn my secret and for a few weeks I felt closer to him spiritually than any other person. As I began collecting my thoughts to put them to paper I entered a world of thought which had to seem like a distancing from him. Paradoxically just when I found a friend with whom I could discuss the visions of my soul, these visions claimed my attention to the point of making me seem unfriendly and almost ungrateful. For the first time I experienced the dilemma of being a writer, the involuntary isolation and alienation from those closest to one that comes from a profound passion to share one's ideas with them.

As the journey was nearing its end the jeep broke down and there were a few days of waiting in Istanbul. It was here that I first put pen to paper and wrote an essay Reality, Knowledge and Excellence (which was subsequently published in slightly altered form as Computers and a New Philosophy of Knowledge).


It was a journey in more senses than one. It did three things. First, it revealed to me the power of friendship in giving one the courage to develop a dream and in so doing transformed my attitude about myself. Second, it gave content to my dream, although at a deeper level the content served only to re-awaken in me the power of that which had happened twenty years earlier. I was now determined to stop thinking of my dream as a secret about which I should be ashamed, something that set me apart and made me different in a negative sense. I realized the dream was positive and I decided to share it.

Third, the moment I returned I planned to tell everyone about just how remarkable were the things I had seen, Easter processions in Seville, sunsets in the Sahara, Roman cities in Tunisia, praying in mosques and climbing minarets, climbing Mount Olympus in the clouds, reaching its peak and watching the clouds swept away as if by Zeus himself, praying and arguing with the monks of Mount Athos, swimming in the River of Knowledge in the cave of Heaven not far from Tarsus where Cicero had been governor and Anthony met Cleopatra, descending seven stories in the underground cities of Anatolia and seeing the grandeur of the rain swept plains that had once been Hattusas, capital of the Hittite empire, a discussion in the Blue Mosque, the Turkish influences in Bulgaria, Italian influences in Jugoslavia, the sleepy valleys of the Alps as the Emperor Concerto played its triumphant chords.

I shall never forget our return to a cottage on the Lake of Constance. How was it?, asked the housekeeper. Our minds had a hundred paragraphs like the foregoing one, and yet our tongues were tied. I was soon struggling with paradoxes. The more extra-ordinary the experience the harder it is to convey. Some persons are jealous. Some are convinced one is trying to boast or show off. Most quite honestly cannot imagine something that is so foreign to themselves. So, although I wrote up my diary, I found the journey becoming something I could not talk about except with the rarest of friends. In a sense it became my new secret.

Something even more paradoxical happened. As I reflected on the magnitude of what I had experienced I was overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and near despair. I had just had an incredible trip. I had seen more culture and civilization in three months than many persons in a lifetime. I had seen the great centres of Greek, Roman, and Hittite civilization. They were all in ruins. It wasn't as if there were just one or two sites that had fallen into a slight state of disrepair. They were ruins in the truest sense. My sadness and despair came from thinking: if this is how civilization treats its highlights, the best it has to offer, what hope is there for civilization?


It took me a decade to find a tentative answer. The highlights of civilization which I had seen, the temples at Selinunte, Agrigento, Ephesus; the colosseums at Arles and El-Djem; the theatres at Epidaurus, Segesta, Taormina and Aspendos were all physical manifestations of social customs and spiritual ideals. There is the spirit and the flesh. There is the human spirit and there are objects, which are expressions of this spirit. As the spirit evolves, the expressions change and the earlier expressions are reduced to being merely objects and are thus neglected and forgotten. The Roman custom of combat made colosseums necessary. But there was something fairly primitive in a custom that included feeding Christians and slaves to lions. So when the customs improved, the buildings of the old customs were neglected. Ultimately they became ruins because the ideas, the ideals, the spirit behind them was no more. And while they continue to have an historical value in reminding us of what once was, the real challenge lies elsewhere, focussing on the spirit rather than its expression, the soul of culture not its skin, the dreams. If the dreams are right, if the spirit has a true vision then the buildings, the monuments will follow. The monuments are not the civilization. They are merely expressions of a spirit and will crumble the moment the spirit moves on. Gradually the quest became to find the spirit of civilization, or rather to cultivate a spirit that could lead civilization in new directions.

My search for this underlying spirit pointed to three or four sources: entertainment, learning, and religion/security. These sources are basic needs. The most superficial of these is entertainment, the quest to be distracted. In Antiquity this produced the colosseums, circuses, and to a certain extent, the theatres. In our century this has produced the sports stadiums and sports transmissions via radio and television. Recently some have tried to combine the power of entertainment with learning to produce info-tainment and edu-tainment. This is misleading because there is a basic conflict of goals. Entertainment aims at distraction. Learning can be witty, playful, and humorous but it requires concentration and focussing of attention.

Learning is one of the most fascinating aspects of culture and civilization. There is inevitably a tendency to learn about ourselves but not about others. Anyone who was not a Greek was a barbarian. The Romans built Hadrian’s wall to keep the so-called barbarians from Scotland at bay. The Chinese built a wall around their culture for similar reasons. Yet the memorable civilizations have been precisely those which transcended that limitation. Aristotle became one of the greatest persons of all time because he commissioned his best student, Alexander the Great, to help him learn about things in Persia, India and wherever he went. The library at Alexandria tried to collect learning from all known cultures. Arabic culture became great when a caliph at Gundishapur sent emissaries to the west to collect Greek and Roman culture. Today, the Vatican, Herzog August Bibliothek, British Library, Bibliothиque Nationale de la France, and Library of Congress are the greatest libraries of the world precisely because they did not limit themselves to learning only about their own culture.

Religion is the most profound of these spirits of culture. In Greece the great theatres such as Epidauros were linked with religion. In the Middle Ages, religion produced the great cathedrals and monasteries. Elsewhere religion produced the temple of Solomon, the great Islamic mosques, Buddhist and Jain temples, shrines, sacred cities and even a whole peninsula, Mount Athos. All the major religious texts from the I Ching and the Rig Veda through the Talmud, Bible and Koran, share a belief in a power beyond beyond the individual which gives them some higher purpose and a sense of security, both in this life and beyond.

This quest for enduring security produced the pyramids, and great tombs and monuments throughout the ages, from the first emperor of China at Xian, the statue of Ozymandias and the Ara Pacis to the tombs for the Medici that made Michelangelo famous. The Medici, along with Fuggers, discovered that banking and investment offered a secular means of producing security and pursuing a higher purpose. This proved to be one of the major discoveries of the Renaissance and indeed, helped pay for it. The Renaissance also secularized other aspects of religious security in the form of assurance, now called insurance. The centuries thereafter discovered that one can have financial security without a higher purpose, which helps to explain why banks are now the largest buildings and why we have no equivalent of the Renaissance.

Fruitful combinations of the basic needs produced some of the highlights of civilization. Religious belief requires study. So the great synagogues, cathedrals and mosques were also linked with schools. In the Middle Ages the rise of universities was closely linked with religious orders particularly the Dominicans and Franciscans.

Just as civilizations have a tendency to set themselves apart, almost all religious groups have their sacred texts, the learning of which sets persons apart from others. Learning about one's religion threatens to become a way of not learning about others who are then looked upon as different, unclean, outcast(e)s, infidels, not kosher etc. This is almost always true of cults. The major religions on the world have transcended this tendency.

Indeed one of the fundamental contributions of Christianity was to transform this model of learning as exclusivity into a systematic process of learning about others and everything possible. The initial motives were closely linked with self-defense. Evolving in the context of a Greco-Roman civilization the early Christians had to explain how and why their approach was better. So rather than simply fighting the enemy they learned about them and ironically when the barbarians overran the enemy, it was the Christians who somehow carried on and kept alive the traditions of ancient learning. What began as an effort to keep it alive expanded gradually into a series of quests for its revival. Charlemagne (800 A.D.) was an early example. Gerbert of Aurillac, who later became Pope Sylvester II (1000 A.D.) expanded the scope by including Arabic knowledge.

The year 1141 added a further dimension when Peter the Venerable commissioned Robert Retinensis and Hermann of Dalmatia to translate the Koran, the Chronicle of the Saracens, Ptolemy's Planisphere and Alkindi's On the Judgement of the Stars from Arabic into Latin. The original motives included a diatribe against the infidels and a treatise on mathematics and astronomy which was to be "the sum of all knowledge", underlying which was the more important idea that in order to refute others one had to study them and understand them.

All this is important for our story because Peter the Venerable was the Abbot of Cluny, from which issued the Cluniac reforms. In short, what sparked the great spread of monasteries in the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries was a new approach to universal learning. To achieve this required an extraordinary translation campaign and an enormous growth in interpretation. What had begun as isolated attempts in Sicily, Spain, England, Italy and France, led within the next century and a half to a programmatic attempt to include the whole of knowledge, culminating in the Summas of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

This established universities as the dominant centres of learning, which remained so until the nineteenth century. Since then universities gradually abandoned their vision of a universe of study and became centres where specialized, fragmentary courses ruled the day. Technical subjects slowly became the domain of polytechnics and technical colleges. In the twentieth century, businesses, major corporations, and banks have opened their own research and training centres, and while it has become the fashion to speak of corporations as learning organizations there is really no equivalent for the universal learning programs of the twelfth through the sixteenth centuries. Either a reform of the old, or a new kind of institution is needed to reformulate in modern terms the vision of universal learning.

In other words in a commitment to open learning in the truest sense lies a key to revival, a new Renaissance, a deepening of culture, a new global vision. If knowledge is power, then learning is the secret to new kingdoms. How do we foster this approach to learning? We need new campaigns in translation, interpretation and reconstruction. We need a System for Universal Multi Media Access, a new SUMMA. It requires new methods for classing (or tagging), searching, organizing and learning. A prototype for software called a System for Universal Media Searching (SUMS) became a first step in that direction.


All this time I was continuing with my research on perspective and Leonardo da Vinci at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbьttel, which I could not have done but for the generous support of scholarships and grants. In my spare time I tried to tell persons of the dream which the journey had given me the courage to discuss. Reactions ranged from polite dismissal to mocking rejection: just as I had imagined it all along actually, and which had made me keep it a complete secret for the two decades between 1961 and 1981. There is a German phrase, "Er spinnt wohl," which means roughly: He's a loony. This, my friends reported was what persons were usually saying behind my back. It took about six months to digest the implications of the journey. This led to A Proposal Concerning the Reorganization of Knowledge.

Almost everyone ignored my ideas. Fortunately there were a few exceptions. Rolf was encouraging. There were four friends from my London days. There was Ian Stuart, a musician, who simply believed that it was important. There was Martin Lee, who was teaching computers at the Royal Military College in Didcot. He assured me that the ideas were exciting but that computers were simply not capable of doing what I would like them to, nor were they ever likely to be. There was Barry Selwyn, a recent graduate in physics, who reassured me that the technology would eventually catch up. And there was John Orme Mills who, as Counselor to the Master of the Dominican Order on the Means of Social Communication and President of Multimedia International, convinced me that the ideas were worthwhile.

In Wolfenbьttel, where I was living at the time, I also had a few friends. One was old enough to be my grandfather. He was Dr. H. H. Solf, retired member of the European Council, the first German to be the chief free-mason of the world, an indescribable combination of effusive, witty, urbane, friendliness and complete mystery, a man who had grown up riding horses with the children of the Emperor of Japan and to whose home the Kaiser literally came to breakfast. Solf, as he was affectionately known, was not much concerned with the details of my dream, but as someone who had been condemned to death for opposing Hitler, he taught me an enormous amount about how one keeps one's faith when things are difficult. A second friend, Udo Jauernig, was very young, but his unbounded enthusiasm for the dream proved a secret strength in keeping alive the past secret.

At a practical level three remarkable women played a crucial role in trying to advance the ideas. The first was Solf's wife, Dr. Sabine Solf, Director of Research at the Library of August, the Duke of Lower Saxony, which in 1630 had been the greatest library in the world, and where Leibnitz and Lessing had been librarians. Sabine Solf officially supported my scholarship but understood mysteriously in a way that I did not at the time how the hobby of telling the dream was as important as the so-called work. It was she, more than anyone else who made the seven years of scholarships possible, and whenever there were moments of doubt, gave me the courage to go on.

There were various committees and organizations linked with the library. This brought Professor Richard Toellner from Mьnster to Wolfenbьttel on a regular basis. One day, when I told him of my dream he told me I should join the German Society for Classification so I did and thus found myself becoming friends with its founder, Dr. Ingetraut Dahlberg, who later went on to found the International Society for Knowledge Organization. She invited me to give a lecture, Thoughts on the Reorganization of Knowledge, at the annual meeting of the Society in Kцnigswinter in April, 1983. This was the first time I spoke publicly about the dream. The next year I was asked to give the inaugural lecture on Multidimensional Bibliography and Classification. In 1986, I gave a further lecture on A New Classification for Art. In 1993, she very generously invited me to be the guest editor of the first number of Knowledge Organization (formerly International Classification), in a special issue devoted to Computers and the Visual Arts.

The third of these remarkable women supporters was Dr. Marie Luise Zarnitz, who headed the scientific section of the Volkswagen Foundation and was untiring in her attempts to gain serious support. She introduced me to the Marburg Archive and their projects, to various members of the Volkswagen Foundation, including the director. There were many meetings. Proposals were written. In the end, however, all the major decisions on cultural projects were in the hands of senior art historians, such as the Director of the Central Institute for Art History. Such gentlemen paid lip service to computers, saw them only as mechanical competition to their minds and thus quashed every proposal. The advice and then the ongoing support of a famous scientist was secured. There were informal meetings through the Wolfenbьttel Conversations, which brought together Rolf from Zьrich, John Orme Mills from Rome and others. There was even a more scholarly conference in Wolfenbьttel, which brought a scholar-scientist from Hoechst. It all seemed to no avail. Those who did not think I was loony tended to dismiss me kindly with the phrase that I was ahead of my time. Quietly I kept on thinking and put together two large notebooks filled with categories and headings for the system.

One day in the early spring of 1984 there was a visit from the outgoing president of RLIN (the Research Libraries Information Network), Dr. Marcus McCorrison, and the ingoing successor, Dr. David Stam. They liked my ideas, and felt that the Getty Trust should be interested in the work. They recommended me. So too did Professor Lynn White, Jr., who was then in his seventies and President of the American Philosophical Association. These recommendations and having as my colleague in Gцttingen, Professor Francoise Forster-Hahn, the wife of the first Director of the Getty Center for the History of Art and the Humanities, combined to my being named Canada's first Getty Scholar, which I took up in 1986-1987. It was there that the bibliography was typed into a computer and the ideas concerning multivalent access to information began taking an electronic form. At the Getty, Dr. Richard Dolen was my advisor on computing problems. He encouraged me greatly. Among my colleagues were Professor Andrй Corboz and his wife Yvette. They understood. We became friends and we have been in touch by phone and/or letter almost weekly ever since.

Officially I had a three-year teaching appointment at the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science in Toronto, which I had interrupted to go to California. In their eyes the work on perspective was not really history of science. My work on the system was considered irrelevant to their needs. Although my students gave me the highest accolades, they were not very numerous. There were rumours that I was too demanding, because I wanted them to learn languages. The chair was given to someone else. As a consolation prize, I was given a Canada Research Fellowship, which gave me five years (1987-1992) to pursue my ideas. In this period the particular database aspects of the bibliography and the universal cultural aspects introduced by the trip were integrated. A first prototype of SUMS used Toolbook as an authoring tool.

Seeming Failures

Nothing quite went the way it was supposed to go, or how I imagined it should. The five years from 1987-1992 were not enough to finish the magnum opus on perspective, which continued to grow but was not yet complete. Thereafter the more conventional of my academic colleagues ever so discretely broke off contact as if I had contracted some contagious disease. Some were forthright enough to suggest that I seemed to have abandoned my work, was not really getting anywhere. It was no sense telling them that there were now two projects, the electronic structure for dealing with the project and the content, which kept growing at a pace that forced me to keep redefining the structure. Happily there were exceptions such as my former student, Dr. Barbara Keyser, and Professor Deidre Vincent, who were and always are cheering. Even so, on dark days, all this seemed more like a bad dream than a great vision.

Help came from unexpected quarters. In 1991, Eckart Wntzen, the head of one of the leading software firms of the Netherlands, BSO, later BSO-Origin, then Origin, gave the McLuhan Program a three-year grant. Thanks to the Director of the Program, Professor Derrick de Kerckhove, my project was given some funding. There were problems because the amount and the terms of reference kept changing. After a year and a half the direct funding disappeared. Indirect funding in the form of leased machines, space, telephone, fax etc. continued. So the good news was that a team slowly emerged. Some members dropped out and yet the team continued to grow. There was progress on a serious demo. The limitations of Toolbook led to a decision to create our own software in C++. Grants from the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), the Metro Board of Education and North York Board of Education and the Faculty of Education made it possible to continue.

Meanwhile, I had applied for a tenure stream position in the Faculty of Education. Cutbacks put this position into limbo. As a consolation I was given a three-year contract. I was allowed to teach one course on New Media and New Approaches to Knowledge. Since this was not an official part of the curriculum few regular students attended. There was a member of the Ontario Ministry of Education, John Taylor. There was the head librarian from York Mills Collegiate, Keith Medley. There were some members of staff from the Faculty of Education. But after various meetings to determine whether I was relevant to education, it was noted that student-based learning was needed, not systems for universal media searching. Besides, said one of the more senior members, the real problem with schools was that there was too much for kids to learn and my proposals to give them access to even more knowledge clearly missed the boat. The contract was not renewed because my work did not fit the needs of the Faculty of Education. Some even said that my work had nothing to do with education.

Thanks to the kind intercession of Dean Adele Fasick, the Faculty of Information Studies generously made me a three-year member of their graduate school, without pay. Effectively I was out on the street. Technically I had joined with three other members of the team to found a SUMS Corporation. This was necessary to apply for a grant from the Canadian Advanced Network for Research Industry and Education (CANARIE). In the eyes of the university, or more precisely my director, I was now a corporation who should be paying monies to the Program and perhaps the university. This blithely overlooked the reality that a corporation without a product cannot sell very much.

The product in the making was a new piece of software. The prototype functioned only on a Windows PC platform. There were plans but no funds to port it to UNIX, Macintosh and OS/2 environments in order to make it platform independent. Precisely what SUMS would do seemed to vary with each individual, who was convinced that it would be their instant ticket to millions. Another reason for there being no finished project was that the technology kept changing. We had initially decided that SGML was too complex. Then HTML seemed a reasonable stop-gap measure. Others felt that VRML, Schockwave and JAVA were the answer. All this delayed the project.

Even without a finished product there were pilot projects. A first was at York Mills Collegiate (1994-1995), led by the head librarian, Mr. Keith Medley. This demonstrated that the principles of SUMS could be used directly in a school environment. The success of this venture inspired a former student, Mr. John MacDonald, to introduce a SUMS partnership with Brother Edmund Rice Secondary School and three elementary schools (St. Rita, Pope Paul and St. Luigi) in the context of a Technological Literacy Project. In June 1996, a committee accepted SUMS for credit in two co-operative classes. Meanwhile, Dr. John Volpe, the Principal of Brother Rice School, began efforts to spread the use to other schools within the separate school board.

In 1995, an application for a grant from CANARIE was not successful, but the industry partners promised to continue nonetheless. The Canadian Hydrographic Service (CHS) formed a consortium with the Centre for Art and Technology at Carleton University to convert their 900 hours of training into SUMS and to explore applications. By the end of 1995, because the promised product kept being delayed, Carleton and CHS had formed a consortium on their own without SUMS. Carleton had also invited me to give a course. There were discussions of a chair. When they also spoke of wishing to own SUMS, the discussions dwindled.

Bell Canada, another member of the CANARIE proposal, decided to continue support for short-term applications through Media Linx. To this end they were to provide equipment and resources to produce working prototypes of SUMS in two fields: health and education. If these were successful, SUMS was also be used in other applications including news and information, entertainment, home shopping, government services and financial services. As the discussions proceeded in the direction of a contract it became clear that Bell expected a twenty five years, world-wide, royalty free licence. The contract was not signed.

The many demonstrations of SUMS included some to senior members of industry and government officials (1994). This led to an invitation to give demonstrations at two successive boot camps of the Systems Engineering Society (SES), one at the NRC in Ottawa, the other at the CBC in Toronto devoted to the future of broadcasting. From this emerged the idea of a high speed test-bed environment that would link the Bell Centre for Creative Communications at Centennial College, CBC and the McLuhan at OC-12 level (622 megabits/second) which would then link to the CANARIE network and to Europe via the Teleglobe Cantat III line at ATM speeds (35 megabits/second). These discussions did not lead to concrete trials.

With a view to research into future applications, Bell also contributed towards an onyx Reality Engine 2, towards which, Silicon Graphics Inc. (Canada), another of the CANARIE partners, also made a generous donation in kind. This machine permitted us to include the virtual reality work of Infobyte (Rome), such as the Tomb of Nefertari, the GMD's Distributed Video Production (DVP) and their work on virtual museums in the context of SUMS demonstrations. It also allowed new connections with the Centre for Landscape Research and the Robarts Library. The links with Bell continued on two fronts. On the researh side there was a connection with Eric Livermore and Arnold Campbell of Bell Northern Research (now Nortel). They encouraged me directly to write some of the essays included in this collection. Meanwhile, Stuart McLeod, the acting CEO of MediaLinx, invited me to be an advisor on developments in new media for the period 1996-1998.

Demos of SUMS attracted attention from increasingly wider audiences, including the CIDOC (Comitй Internationale pour la Documentation de l'Art) section (Quebec City, 1992) of ICOM (International Committee on Museums) and the Couchiching Conference (1993). Thanks to support from Industry Canada, SUMS was invited to represent Canada at international meetings such as CEBIT (Hanover, 1994), the G7 Information Society Exhibition (Brussels, 1995), the European Commission (Brussels, 1995), and the G7 Summit (Halifax, 1995) and the ISAD Conference (Midrand, 1996).

This had three consequences for SUMS. It became one of eight test sites worldwide for IBM's Vatican Library Project; the first Canadian company to be included as a partner in ACTS (Advanced Communications and Technologies Services): the DVP (Distributed Video Production) project of the GMD (Gesellschaft fьr Mathematik und Datenverarbeitung). It was also invited to participate in three other ACTS proposals.

All this brought much honour and no money. The Director of the McLuhan believed that the projects were all phony, and that there was no serious support for SUMS. In June 1995 he reduced our space at the Program by two-thirds. Lack of real funding meant that some of the more ambitious students chose instead to accept lucrative jobs with other companies. In May, 1996, after receiving a short term contract from Schoolnet, the team decided that a change of course was necessary. In their view there had been too much emphasis on the system side of SUMS (the front-end) and too little on the searching side (the back-end). As they saw it, the SUMS interface on its own was not really a methodology, it was simply a pretty front-end. Hence, they focussed their energies on a method for tagging or classing and searching. The students were changing the order of how I had imagined things might evolve.

By early July, when they presented an initial version of the search engine to officials at Schoolnet, it became clear that they had unexpectedly made a more fundamental contribution. Students are inevitably suspicious of systems, especially universal systems. To the students it seemed at first sight as if all the work had already been done and as if the students’ role lay in passively having to accept other persons' categories. Hence, as long as SUMS presented a framework from the research level, it inevitably seemed irrelevant to what they were doing.

Their new classing system gives students the power to make their own personal classification systems. They can organize the world with as few or as many words as they wish. The more words, the more subtle the possible searches and the more penetrating becomes their world view. If they develop it a great deal they will eventually appreciate the contributions of Dewey, Bliss, Ranganathan and others, who have organized the terms in libraries. If they develop even further they will also understand the limitations of those contributions. Making distinctions, classing, tagging as they call it, is an incentive to a new kind of learning, because it shifts attention from facts in isolation to study of the relations between things. Gradually they will also learn that their initial attempts at tagging and classing require a great deal more discipline before they arrive at the levels of professional classifiers and indexers.

In the short term, SUMS was now focussed on tagging, or classing and searching. It was now necessary to show how these related to organizing and learning and to explain how all four functions were essential for the development of SUMMA. It was time to collect together the individual strands, which had evolved over the past fifteen years in the form of a book and outline some of the specifications for a real system.

At the end of 1996 the Director of the McLuhan set an ultimatum: either we were to pay $2000 a month in rent for the honour of being at the coach-house or we would need to leave the Program. Enquiries were made about an office at Faculty of Information Studies (FIS). Since only the research for Bell Northern Research was considered scholarly, the Faculty decided there was no room for what they claimed was strictly a commercial project.

Providentially the Ontario Library Association offered us free space and this provided a new lease on life. For the next two years this became our home. In the course of 1997 a small group of students again joined the team. In Toronto, Mr. John Volpe, proposed that a new Catholic Secondary School should be named after Marshall McLuhan. This idea found favour with the family and the board. It was decided that this should have a room devoted to the development of SUMS for educational purposes.

In Vienna, discussions with Franz Nahrada led to a lecture at the Austrian Parliament, to meetings with Cardinal Christoph von Schцnborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, and the possibility of an electronic monastery on the island of Mljet near Dubrovnik. The idea emerged of a Viennese role in the development of SUMS. An international framework for the development of the idea began to emerge. All the setbacks, which had appeared as failures began to appear as stepping stones in a more complex mosaic.

Life takes curious turns. A Dutch television team (VPRO) had included an eight minute demo of SUMS in a documentary on the information highway. Bjцrn Ottenheim, a student at the Hogeschool in Maastricht saw this, was inspired and came to spend a term at the McLuhan in the spring of 1995. In the spring of 1996 two students came. In the autumn of 1996 the University of Maastricht and the Hogeschool in Maastricht introduced the idea of a Marshall McLuhan Institute for European Digital Culture. The McLuhan family was consulted and agreed to the idea. In the course of the next two years there were numerous discussions. In Maastricht three individuals spearheaded the initiative: Deans Wiebe Bijker and Hans Koolmees and Anneke Eurelings. On 7 November 1998, the new Maastricht McLuhan Institute was formally opened by Dr. Eric McLuhan. The dream had taken a new step towards reality.

New Dreams

When I was thirteen I was afraid of my dream because I feared it would prove that I was different. When I was thirty-three, a friend revealed that there was no reason to be afraid of a good dream, that sometimes one is different because one has something to say. Ironically, both of us then experienced the paradox that explaining the inner dream requires a going inward which distances us from the very persons who are helping us to find ourselves. As we climbed hills in Southern Tunisia, mountains in Greece and motored over the plains of central Turkey we reflected at length on this paradox. True friendship is about true freedom and this, we decided, was when there is no need to possess another person, no need to do anything to prove that one cares for them. Consequently the best proof of true caring was to act as if "one couldn't care less". This became an expression. Superficial friendship wants the other person to become like oneself. Profound friendship gives the other person courage in going their own way even if that way seems to go away from the person to/with whom one feels close.

Thirty five years have passed since the dream. It is still not finished. Perhaps it is still premature to discuss all the details of the dream, but the time has come to talk about the courage to believe in one's dreams, to see them for the beautiful things they are and that they can be, even if it takes many years, even if most of those around us have not a glimmering of the picture which we see, even if every step on the quest to communicate this inner vision, is paradoxically a retreat into oneself, which must needs seem to most as retreat and even apparent failure

We live in a world where the media which promise us a new vision of knowledge and learning are also making us more conscious than ever of effects, results, outcomes, accountability. Faced with these challenges, administrators and even the scholars they are supposed to be helping increasingly focus on machines rather than individuals. Somehow there is always more money for some new gadget and always less money for individuals to use the gadget. Seven hundred thousand dollars for an SGI Reality engine is not really a problem. Seventy thousand for someone to operate the machine often seems, often is, an insuperable problem.

The machines are like the monuments. They are the expressions of civilization, not its source. When the spirit behind a monument moves on, the monuments crumble and they become ruins. Everyone is talking about an information highway. We need a knowledge and a wisdom highway. We need to use machines to confront our dreams and focus our spirit. This road may seem isolating at times, but ultimately it is only thus that we can find a greater freedom.

Having dreams is really about becoming actively involved, not just responding to someone else's answers or even their questions. SUMS is about letting you ask your own questions, about becoming a problem-finder rather than a problem-solver. SUMS is about letting you create your own world-view, picture of the world, way of organizing what you know, and helping you to see where it fits in with the world views of others. There is an old saying that in order to know something one has to give up knowing everything. The greater challenge is to not stop at knowing something, but rather to cultivate a spirit of learning as a way of life. The best of my teachers were that way. But the best of teachers are very rare and the number of students are never so many. No machine can ever replace the magic of a true mentor. They may however provide us with new means of conveying the mentor's magic, the methods more than the contents, the spirit more than the flesh, a spirit which will evolve while the more material monuments will crumble. If we cannot capture the civilization of the spirit let us at least study the spirit of civilization. Let us use electronic machines for spiritual purposes rather than purely material ends. Let these electronic machines become more than the products of dreams: let them become the supporters of dreams, not just Dream Machines in Ted Nelson's sense, but rather as tools that give us the courage to look into the deepest recesses of our souls. For paradoxically in the secret, private recesses of the spirit lie all the ideas for tomorrow's public monuments.

When I was thirteen something in my culture made me fear what is in fact one my greatest strengths. Why do we fear what is good? Why do we fear our dreams? Why should we fear our dreams? This articles and books on SUMS and SUMMA are really to say that we should not fear our dreams. They seek to give courage to others who are still afraid of that which might set them apart. It is a challenge to all of us to think of a new kind of tourism, not just looking at monuments of stone in various states of ruins, but rather at the spirits behind the monuments, the soul of culture, the mysterious lucidity that inspired thousands of monasteries within one century, and thousands of castles in another. We need software to help us study what made that happen, to study what makes some individuals so creative and inventive, to study spirit. For in the spirit lies also the spirit of learning: the secret that keeps us going on, growing, evolving. Most people want to know. Perhaps all we need to know is that learning is more important than knowing.

In the Middle Ages a number of individuals understood that important insight: Charlemagne and his learned secretary Alcuin, Gerbert of Aurillac, Peter the Venerable, and Roger Bacon. As long as the insight touched only isolated individuals its impact remained limited. The revolution began when this insight began to affect everyman. That is what sparked the building of those thousands of monasteries until more efficient ways had been found for learning through schools and books. That is what led to the Summas of Aquinas and ultimately to the Encyclopйdie. The process became cumulative. In a sense the monasteries provided a first systematic network for knowledge. Today we have an emerging information highway. Now we need to make it a networked knowledge highway accessible to everyone. In this lies not only a revival of old knowledge but rather the secret to a new flowering of culture. We need to learn. SUMS is but a first step towards an ever elusive SUMMA.


In universal projects the list of persons to thank are universal. Foundations, organizations, friends and a team have been the chief supporters who helped to make the dream continue.


The background work for these projects was done in the course of many years of scholarships and fellowships. These include the Canada Council (1971-1975), the Wellcome Trust (1975-1977), Volkswagen Foundation (1977-1979), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (1979-1981), Thyssen Foundation (1981), Gerda Henkel Foundation (1982-1984), University of Toronto (1984-1989), Getty Trust (1986-1987) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (1987-1992).


From 1990 to 1996 Professor Derrick de Kerckhove, the Director of the McLuhan Program provided the Perspective Unit and SUMS with space and basic amenities. In 1992 thanks to funding from BSO, later BSO Origin and then Origin, Professor De Kerckhove provided the Perspective Unit with funds to lease three computers, a colour and black and white printer, two LCD panels and basic software. By 1994 Professor De Kerckhove came to expect that external funding for the Perspective Unit should help to fund his projects at the McLuhan Program. When it became clear that such funds were not available, access to the previously leased equipment and space was gradually reduced and then removed entirely.


Friends play many roles. Some share intellectually in the ideals and challenge one at every turn. Many of these have been mentioned in the introduction. Others provide quiet support, providing lodgings to visitors, creating receptions, cooking meals, helping to create an ambiance. In Wolfenbьttel this included Gisela Comes, Ruth Karsten, Annelies Schmidt and Christel Gerhard. In Toronto there were friends such as Dr. Barbara Keyser, Professor Deirdre Vincent and Dr. Anne Tyrie (ITRC) who supported the project. Harry Rogers, Deputy Minister Intergovernmental Affairs, later President, PRECARN, supported our application for a CANARIE grant and was very encouraging. So too were Rick Selleck, President of the Systems Engineering Society (SES) and his colleagues, Steve Cooper and Peter Hinckley.


At the Getty Center (1986-1987), the first to contribute to sense of a team was Dr. Richard Dolen, who helped co-ordinate the efforts of Coley Grundmann, the person typing in the titles, within a larger structure. Dr. Dolen has remained a counselor and friend in the course of the past decade. On my return to Toronto, the project continued for a time with the help of only one assistant: Alan Brolley (1987-1988), Paul Chvostek (1988-1989). Jeff Kemp, a student whom I had advised, put me in touch with a person who had taught computing in high schools for many years, Jerry Szazman (1990-1991).

In 1988, after I gave the Reynolds Lecture at University of Colorado at Boulder, I was approached by a student, Eric Dobbs. He began corresponding and in the summer of 1990 he joined the project. Eric Dobbs had a keen mind and seemed to be a friend who shared the vision. After almost a year, he left to finish his degree, returned for a few months and then moved on to Las Vegas. Eric Dobbs was an inspiration but not prepared for long term commitment.

For the summer of 1992 Eric Mang helped on the project. Thanks to a friend, Michael Kupka, secretary of the Toronto branch of Siggraph, Jonathan Shekter, a gifted high school student, joined the project at the end of 1992. For a time Jonathan became the chief programmer. He persuaded two of his friends David Pritchard (who stayed until May 1996) and Jordan Christensen to join him. In the summer of 1993 this led to a team which included Eitan Grinspun and Michael Karczmarek as programmers and Effi Ofer, Sascha Matzkin and Rani Talut Kharbutli in porting, i.e. translating information, from Toolbook to the SUMS framework.

Daniel Skutelsky, who became involved on a casual basis in 1994, founded his own group on natural language in 1995 which developed in tandem with SUMS until June 1996 when the Director reduced the amount of space available to the Perspective Unit.

Thanks to Dr. Anne Tyrie, a member of the Mentorship Program, the spring term of 1994 saw Ronodev Sinha as a mentee. This led two students from his school to become members of the team, Andrew McCutcheon and Ming Lim during the summer of 1994. The spring term of 1995 saw Tony Hu as a mentee. At this time, just as the application for a CANARIE grant was underway, Jonathan Shekter quit the team.

Jordan Christensen now became the head of the programming team and a key individual in co-ordinating efforts of various members. In the summer of 1995 the team expanded with Sean Graham, Jeff Zakrzewski and David Seale (who worked full time from February through July 1996) as programmers, Darwin Ou-Yang as assistant programmer with content provided by David Faria and Jimmy Woo. Graphics projects were continued by Darius Tse and Hormoz Nabili.

Meanwhile, in January 1995 Rakesh Jethwa joined the project full-time. His particular interest was in digital video and interactive television. He was also concerned with the organization as a whole. In August 1995, a SUMS Corporation was created with Kim Veltman, Jordan Christensen, Andrew McCutcheon and Rakesh Jethwa as founding members. This became the new core group. Zoltan Fьlop helped on an informal basis throughout 1995 and early 1996. In the spring of 1996 his brother, Miklos Fьlop, began working on graphics and in July began as a full-time volunteer. Jimmy Woo introduced his brother Daniel Woo and Jordan Christensen introduced his brother Kyle and brought his friend Greg Stuart to work full time.

Meanwhile, John MacDonald, the high school teacher who had been a former student, initiated a project linking his high school with three elementary schools. This brought new students to the project, notably Sam Gauchi and Radeck Maj. John Volpe also sent students from his new high school: Hameed Amirzada and Brendan. While most of the above worked as volunteers, some were paid as monies became available. Some made a passing contribution. Others such as Jordan played an important role in the evolution of the project. Rakesh also played a significant role in co-ordinating efforts.

While the SUMS team was being threatened with expulsion from the McLuhan Program a small group led by Dr. Anne Tyrie, Elisabeth Lambden, John Bell, John Volpe and Rakesh Jethwa joined together to form a SUMS Advisory Board. This group has continued to give direction to what is emerging as SUMS Canada. I am deeply grateful to all who have played a role in helping transform the dream into a reality.