Monday, September 19, 2011


Clive Thompson, writing the Collision Detection blog, posted "How did you find my site?" and Vannevar Bush's memex". He discusses the problem of associative hyperlinking and the fact that Internet browsers only allow us to record our browsing history chronologically rather than thematically. He cites Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay for the Atlantic Monthly, “As We May Think”.

"Bush’s essay has become famous amongst digital folks because of how eerily he predicted the emergence of a hyperlinked Internet. “As We May Think” is, at heart, a complaint about information overload (in 1945!) and a suggestion of how to solve it: By building better tools for sorting, saving, and navigating stuff. Bush envisioned a “memex”, a desk-like tool at which you’d sit, reading over zillions of documents stored via microfilm. You could also write your own notes and reflections (which would saved in microfilm format too, photographed automatically via a forehead-mounted webcam “a little larger than a walnut”. That illustration above is a rough mockup of a Memex, by the way.)

The really Nostradamusian element, though, was the hyperlinks. An essential part of the memex, Bush envisioned, would be its system for letting you inscribe connections between documents. He described someone doing research into the history of the “Turkish bow”: The user pores over “dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles”, finds one particularly useful one, then another, and “ties the two together”. He continues on, adding in his own “longhand” notes, and eventually he “builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.”

This is, of course, precisely how one does research online today. Except for one big difference: We don’t really have tools for saving what Bush calls the “trail” — the specific pathway by which someone went from one document to another. Sure, we share the results of our online surfing. We do that all the time: Links posted to Twitter, Facebook, a gazillion public fora. But when someone asks “how’d you find that? What was your pathway?”, we often don’t know. We share the results of our knowledge formation, but not how we formed it."

I had never come across Vannevar Bush's paper, and as a bit of a geek/nerd, I feel foolish for not having read it. It predicts the personal computer, networking, the hyperlinked Internet ... all now exist. However, one feature of the Memex has yet to be realised ... that of associative or thematic trails.

To quote some more from Vannevar Bush ...

"Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call. Mendel's concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships."

"Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage."

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