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Surfing the web with Phileas Fogg

5 November 2002

Tim Unwin, Professor of French, gave his inaugural lecture on travel, technology and knowledge. This extract plots a course between two areas he has toured extensively: the novels of Jules Verne and the Internet.

On Wednesday 2 October 1872, at the Reform Club in London, a fictional English gentleman by the name of Phileas Fogg claims that he can travel 'around the world in eighty days'. Brandishing an itinerary said to be based on a Thomas Cook brochure of that same year, Fogg points out that communications have never been better. The Earth, he says, has literally shrunk and to prove it he offers up his £20,000 personal fortune as a wager.

The journey described in Verne’s famous novel has become the stuff of modern legend. Although it is now within many people’s reach to get around the globe in 48 hours or so, the challenge undertaken by Fogg continues to provoke an almost primeval fascination. Verne’s text has inspired generations of real or would-be travellers and spawned a host of imitators and adapters. But to many, Verne is also regarded as the father of science fiction – a kind of Nostradamus of the 19th century – predicting the era of technology and the machine and, of course, electronic communications. In fact, the vast majority of his stories are not futuristic, but there are many insights and lessons about a changing modern world that can be drawn from them, and the parallel between our own world of electronic communications and the innovations that Verne describes is especially appealing.

The Internet as we know it today has been in existence for only a decade, but in that brief time-span it has affected every area of our work. As a research site, it is the Vernian dream come true – with all its advantages and drawbacks. It is not unlike the library in the Nautilus submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where Professor Aronnax is able to discover the seemingly infinite wonders of human knowledge from a single, remote location. His journey as the hostage of Captain Nemo provides him with ideal conditions for scholarship. And when he has finished perusing the library's cornucopian store of texts, he can move next door to contemplate the fabulous collections of artistic works hanging on the walls of the salon. Finally, if he wants an image of the so-called real world, the wonders of marine life are visible through every porthole. This, truly, is the bombarding generosity of the media age.

To many, Verne is also regarded as the father of science fiction – a kind of Nostradamus of the 19th century

For teachers, too, the Internet makes available a previously unimagined range of authentic, up-to-date documents, sound files, video clips, newspaper and magazine articles, news and information sites. Professor Aronnax, like so many of Verne's characters, was a teacher.

Writing for the youth of 19th-century France,Verne invites his reader to become a virtual traveller and to learn about the different regions of the globe. He assembles vast amounts of knowledge, often pausing unashamedly in the course of his narrative to stockpile a few more facts and statistics.Verne’s editor once explained: ‘His aim is to summarise all the discoveries of geography, geology, physics and astronomy that modern science has amassed, and to rewrite, in his own charming and picturesque way, the history of the universe.’ Some aim indeed! But with Verne, as with the Internet, knowledge is often recycled in a haphazard manner, which raises all sorts of questions about authenticity and originality.

Jules Verne read voraciously and annotated his readings on an elaborate card-index system. As he was writing, he used the cards one by one, then destroyed them when their contents had been entered into his texts. It seemed the ideal database, with the balance finely maintained between supply and demand. Yet there is often the sense that Verne's novels are simply overtaken by their own contents. The threat of information-overload, constant in Verne's writing, is a familiar one to us in the electronic age. The Internet has provided such rich pickings that it can sometimes be difficult to know where to start and where to end. It is the randomness of the process that is the concern.

Professor Tim Unwin / Department of French

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