[Seed] The Memex, 7 Decades In

In 1945, Vannevar Bush outlined a vision of the Memex in his incredible essay As We May Think. The essay is an interesting blend of archaic technologies like microfilm and vacuum chambers on the one hand, and visions that have yet to be fulfilled on the other.

Bush imagines a system that works as an extension of the human mind, taking advantage of its strengths: associative thinking, episodic memory etc. An example:

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

It seems to me that there is a lot of learned helplessness around using the computer to get to new levels of knowledge. We have a lot of cool innovations on shared platforms (Twitter, Wikipedia) but the typical personal workflow is still mostly an electronic version of paper for linear text, not so different from Mesopotamian clay tablets.

I’ll keep updating this post and website with thoughts on the state of Bush’s vision in 2019. For now, here are some resources that get close:

Why not Wikipedia? It’s an amazing achievement but it does not allow adjustment based on personal associations, memories, experiences etc.

Eric Drexler’s Tale of the Temple from Engines of Creation, published in 1996, provides a good checkpoint between Bush and us:

The Tale of the Temple

Once upon a time, there lived a people with an information problem. Though they had replaced their bulky clay tablets with paper, they used it oddly. In the heart of their land stood a stately dome. Beneath the dome lay their great Chamber of Writings. Within this chamber lay a broad mound of paper scraps, each the size of a child’s hand.

From time to time, a scholar would journey to this temple of learning to offer knowledge. A council of scribes would judge its worth. If it proved worthy, they would inscribe it on a scrap of paper and ceremoniously fling it upon the heap.

From time to time, some industrious scholar would come to seek knowledge – to rummage through the heap in search of the needed scrap. Some, skilled in such research, could find a particular scrap in as little as a month. The scribes always welcomed researchers: they were so rare.

We moderns can see their problem: in a disorderly heap, each added scrap buries the rest (as on so many desks). Every scrap is separate, unrelated to the others, and adding references would provide little help when finding a scrap takes months. If we used such a heap to store information, our massive, detailed writings on science and technology would become almost useless. Searches would take years, or lifetimes.

We moderns have a simple solution: we place pages in order. We place page after page to make a book, book after book to fill a shelf, then fill a building with shelves to make a library. With pages in order, we can find them and follow references more rapidly. If the scribes employed scholars to stack scraps by subject, their research would grow easier.

Yet, when faced with stacks on history, geography, and medicine, where should the scholars put scraps on historical geography, geographical epidemiology, and medical history? Where should they put scraps on “The History of the Spread of the Great Plague”?

But in our imaginary land, the scribes choose another solution: they send for a magician. But first they turn scholars loose in the chamber with needles and thread to run strands from scrap to scrap. Thread of one color links a scrap to the next in a series, another color leads to a reference, another to a critical note, and so forth. The scholars weave a network of relationships, represented by a network of threads. At last, the magician (with flashing eyes and floating hair) chants a spell, and the whole mess heaves slowly into the air to float like a cloud in the dome. Ever after, a scholar holding a scrap need only tap a thread knotted to its edge to make the linked scrap leap to hand. And the threads, magically, never tangle.

Now the scholars can link scraps on “The History of the Spread of the Great Plague” to related scraps on history, geography, and medicine. They can add all the notes and texts they please, linking them to best advantage. They can add special index scraps, able to bring instantly to hand whatever they list. They can place links wherever they wish, weaving a network of knowledge to match the connections of the real world.

We, with our inert stacks of paper, could only envy them – if we didn’t have computers.

Magic Paper Made Real

In 1945, Vannevar Bush proposed a system he called a “memex.” It was to be a desk-sized device, crammed with microfilm and mechanisms, able to display stored pages and let the user note relationships among them. A microfilm memex was never built, but the dream lived on.

Today, computers and screens are becoming cheap enough to use for ordinary reading and writing. Some paper publishers have become electronic publishers, making magazines, newspapers, and journals available through computer networks. And with the right programs, text-handling computers will let us link this information in ways even better than magic thread.

Theodor Nelson, the originator of the idea, has dubbed the result “hypertext”: text linked in many directions, not just in a one-dimensional sequence. Readers, authors, and editors using a hypertext system will generally ignore the workings of its computers and screens just as they have generally ignored the mechanics of photocomposition and offset lithography in the past. A hypertext system will simply act like magic paper; anyone who fiddles with it will soon become familiar with its basic abilities. Still, a description of one system’s structure will help in explaining how hypertext will work.


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