The Memex after 70 Years

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.


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