If there’s a master’s cup for science-fiction visionaries, it might actually belong to Hermann Hesse. In a late novel, the German author seemed to imagine the World Wide Web, and its kaleidoscopic hyperlinks, fifty years before it existed.
Das Glasperlenspiel, which won the Nobel Prize in 1946, centers on “the Glass Bead Game,” in which players combine the symbols of world cultures into new and insightful combinations. Here’s his description of the game — see if this doesn’t sound like the Web:
“The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette. All the insights, noble thoughts, and works of art that the human race has produced in its creative eras, all that subsequent periods of scholarly study have reduced to concepts and converted into intellectual values the Glass Bead Game player plays like the organist on an organ. And this organ has attained an almost unimaginable perfection; its manuals and pedals range over the entire intellectual cosmos; its stops are almost beyond number. Theoretically this instrument is capable of reproducing in the Game the entire intellectual content of the universe.”
Hesse never quite explains how the game is played, which has set a lot of modern designers working on playable variants. The most popular is Charles Cameron’s HipBone Game (here’s an example of a board game, but Cameron’s working on a web-based version). This bears watching: The web is constantly evolving, and perhaps Hesse’s vision is still ahead of us.