The World as Flatland – Report 1
Designing universal knowledge
by Gerlinde Schuller

Lars Müller Publishers, 2009
17 x 24 cm, 304 pages, English
Hardcover, with a large amount of images
ISBN 978-3-03778-149-4

Available at bookstores worldwide

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Presskit

Knowledge is power. If one possesses a collection of the ‘universal knowledge’ of the world, one has ultimate power. Establishing comprehensive, global collections of knowledge already fascinated mankind thousands of years ago. Today, modern communication and information technologies offer quick and prompt collecting, high memory capacities and wide-ranging access. In addition, globalization and the Internet advance a mentality which moves away from the local and regional towards the international and universal. Collections of knowledge, such as archives, encyclopaedias, databases and libraries, also follow this trend. They are engaged in a race against time in both the technological and creative area.
Their clearly formulated aim is to establish for us a complete and up-to-date collection of ‘universal knowledge’.

Who is collecting the world’s knowledge?
How are knowledge archives structured and designed?
Who determines the access to this knowledge?
What knowledge entails power?

These questions formed the starting point of the research, which resulted in a report exploring the meaning of ‘universal knowledge’ as well as the process of collecting, structuring, designing, and publishing it. Designers and researchers from different fields have set standards for the classification and design of complex data collections and thus exerted an enormous influence on how knowledge is communicated.
Along with these aspects, the report also explores the possibilities of ‘universal design’ and presents new approaches to visualize complex information.

The systematic and professional collection of knowledge has always been influenced by economic and political interests and presented as a social and society-changing act. The report critically elucidates these aspects as well as the forms of manipulation and censorship which knowledge storages have never been able to completely evade.

Gerlinde Schuller investigated the subject in interviews with Richard Saul Wurman (US), John Maeda (US),
Nigel Holmes (US), Wim Crouwel (NL), Paul Kahn (F),

Jean-Noël Jeanneney (F), Rop Gonggrijp (NL),
Marion Winkenbach (D), Hannah Hurtzig (D) and

Martin Alberts (NL).

The book also includes essays by Alex Wright (US),
Willem van Weelden (NL), Markus Frenzl (D)
and Femke Snelting (B).


Reviews and interviews on the book
Interview with Richard Saul Wurman

Do you believe that hackers have universal
access to information because they can hack
themselves through political and technological
borders?
'Not necessarily...But I do believe
that, because so much of our
culture and our world is now
technical, hackers are often the
only people truly understanding
what’s going on. Hackers are the
only ones who haven’t signed a
Non-Disclosure Agreement
regarding technology. They’re not
the only ones in the know but they
are the only ones who are going
to tell you because everybody
else has interests that conflict
with telling the truth.'
Interview with Rop Gongrijp, hacker and activist

'Systematic design, understood 
as systematic thinking and filtering
of information by designers,
stands, in content-related terms
as well, in the tradition of simpli-
city as the expression of the
intellect and thus a notion of
design that grasps simplicity not
as a formal trend but as a criterion
relevant to the content.'
Markus Frenzl, writer and design critic in his essay
'The surge of simplicity in a complex world'

‘Universal knowledge as a
linguistic construct, concept
and myth proves to be foremost
a liminal one, a concept that
points to the borders and
constraints of its very existence.'
Willem van Weelden, researcher and publicist
in his essay 'Universal Manipulation'

‘I would like to think that pictures
help people. Whether you ever
could have a true universal
pictorial language, I don’t think
so. And I don’t mind that.'
Interview with Nigel Holmes, information designer

'Things that we can understand, 
I don’t think that there is a limit of
what we can take in. If it informs
me I don’t go after it unless I am
interested in it. If I am interested
in it and it informs me it becomes
knowledge and understanding.
Understanding, for me, is a more
grown-up term. In my mind, I can
see patterns when I understand
things. I see the world as visual
patterns of connectivity.'
Interview with Richard Saul Wurman, 
information designer

Do you believe in universal knowledge, as Google
and other companies promise?
'I believe in access. I love to have
access. I think it’s so American.
It’s so open, it’s like America used
to be. Positive! It’s about
empowerment. However, will they
make it happen? Well, Google is
a business as well. The question
is: How do you bounce the needs
of business with the needs of
people like you and me?' 
So it’s not there yet?
'Oh, no! And when people ask: 
Why isn’t it there yet? – I have to
say: Well, it’s going to be.'
Interview with John Maeda, information scientist

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