More thoughts on the Memex

January 25, 2007 at 3:54 pm Leave a comment

More thoughts from Vannevar Bush’s article “As we may think.”  So far we’ve created our Memex through a combination of:

  • The web
  • Projects like Google Books or Amazon’s Search Inside (though allowing full-test reads which is certainly available and possible but restricted to impose artificial scarcity)
  • Search engines and tags: Google and
  • Outboard Brain in the form of blogs and wikis.
  • A computer fitted with a scanner and good OCR software, not to mention voice recognition software.
  • At least: tabbed browsing, but better: multimonitors
  • A wiki-type format that allows annotation of the base document and concurrent availability of the original as well as other people’s editions.

 The rest of his specs seem to be met with:

  • Hyperlinks
  • Wikipedia
  • Brain implants to allow direct transmission of information

Bush goes on to say, “All this is conventional…it affords an intermediate step…to associative indexing…whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the Memex.  The process of tying two items together is the important thing.”

Simplistically, does the humble hyperlink fit this bill?  Say I’m writing, well, this blog post, and the ideas congealed into the thoughts here are all linked together and available from this one post.  This post may be unique on the web, in the way it associatively links these content sources together.  The content sources remain unchanged by my action of linking to them allowing them to be linked to again and again by anyone and everyone if need be.

Bush goes on to describe how the Memex would handle this associative indexing, this trail:  “…he names it, inserts the name in his code book….Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions….Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled….Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn…[like] turning the pages of a book.  It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book.  It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails….”  [without diminishing its utility, the information exists in a digital commons in a nonrivalrous sort of way: me using it does not make it unavailable to you.  In fact considering Google and page rank, my linking to a resource actually makes it easier for you to find it.] 

This ‘trail of interest’ creating a ‘new book’ sounds a lot like a dynamic web page, or simpler, a document containing hyperlinks, like a Word document, or a blog post (or even just a report with a bibliography and footnotes?).  The ‘code book’ by which the Memex-user looks for the trail of interest might be full-text search like Google, or, or the category listings on an outboard-brain-blog.  Using as part of the code book would allow pivoting on ‘codes’ that is, you’ll find your trail of interest through the tag you’ve given it, then you can see what other trails of interest might have been tagged with that same code by other users…  Bush goes on to say that the trails can be duplicated and given to friends to drop into their Memex, which sounds very social software-like indeed. “Whole new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the Memex and there amplified….”  Well, that’s Wikipedia in a nutshell. 

Actually, isn’t a Memex just a standard library with books containing good bibliographies, but enabled in such a way that it’s not a pain to travel forward and back on the trail.  An analog version of the Memex is a bunch of people running around getting books for you and opening them to the right page?  The book you write, or the notes you take, capture the trail of interest that you can pass to a friend. 

I think the ease and speed of access, and a dynamic character are important aspects to the Memex, then.  Travels down a thread of end-of-book bibliographies takes a lot of time.  And sticking a new side trail into the book would require another edition.  And your book, your trail of interest, can be given to a friend, but to follow it completely would require that they go back to the library to find the books on the path.  I think Bush’s Memex would include those content sources along the trail.

Predicting the rise of the knowledge worker: “there is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but…the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”  In these days of ubiquitous information this ‘new profession’ is becoming more important.  Part of my interest in information literacy arises from this fact: we continue to train our kids to synthesize new information, yet we are slow to teach them how to use the Memex.  Remembering Vinge’s Rainbows End, and the teacher’s soliloquy:  “Sometimes it’s best to coordinate with lots of other people who together can make the answers….This class is about search and analysis, the heart of the economy.  We obviously need search and analysis as consumers.  In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living.  But, in the end we must also know something about something….Don’t let those skills die.  Use them.  Improve on them.  You can do it with a special form of preanalysis that I call ’study’…..Find out what makes you different and better…..And once you do, you’ll be able to contribute answers to others and others will be willing to contribute back to you.  In short, synthetic serendipity doesn’t just happen.  By golly, you must create it.”  This sounds extreme, yet we’re on the other extreme right now.  Plagiarism is still against the rules, yet shouldn’t credit be given for finding the definitive text rather than coming up with your own barely legible version thereof: finding the trail not reinventing the wheel.

Bush goes on extrapolating and hits many of the points discussed in Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near and its enhanced humans, and On Intelligence and its invariant representations: why worry about transmitting on a TV when we could just pump the electric signals into the optic nerve or straight to the brain? “Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another?” 

Bush sums the article with [paraphrased]: It would be ideal if we could easily find and analyze the huge volume of information available to us.  Mechanizing this bulk of knowledge in such a way that it is accessible and retrievable and findable when we need it again, and in such a way that we can have the privilege of forgetting exactly what “drawer” it’s in when it’s not sitting on top of the desk.  The latter sounds very like “Getting Things Done,” by Allen

“Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.”

So let’s see, the web, Wikipedia, a scanner with OCR, a couple of huge monitors, a blog,, and Google get us part of the way.  A completed Google Books project, full web-access to journals and newspapers, etc. (in other words no more of this artificial scarcity stuff) and some wear-comp, and we’re there?


Entry filed under: feed my pet brain.

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