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🍔  💀  📸  😭  🕳️  🤠  🎬  🥔 posts about memex

The Rise of the Trail Blazers

Somehow Snarkmarket contains no links to one of my favorite essays of all time, “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush. Our esteemed host has linked to it, of course, because is an unparalleled collection of fine hypertext products. But I think it’s worth a repeat. Many people know this essay, but most still don’t.

Bush was part of the Oppenheimer set; he was an engineer whose work was critical to the creation of the atomic bomb. By the time this essay was published, Mussolini and Hitler were dead, and World War II was almost over. He begins from a perspective I find cold and alienating, that of a scientist exhilarated by an intellectual pursuit that has left millions dead and more devastated. He doesn’t reckon with this even as he writes a paean to what science has accomplished:

Of what lasting benefit has been man’s use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

But then he goes on to outline a problem of knowledge that persists in our time and may have grown even worse:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Bush goes on to describe a series of technological leaps — in computing capability, optical storage, and more — that build on the state of the art of information storage and retrieval in his day. The advancements he imagines culminate in a written sketch of a machine:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

This essay is often described as presaging the internet. The design Bush sketched for the memex inspired generations of computer engineers, influencing the inventors of things like the computer mouse and hypertext. But what fascinates me about this essay is that the device he describes does not resemble the internet or anything I’ve ever found on it. And the problem Bush imagines the machine as solving — supplementing human memory — hasn’t been aided by the internet so much as worsened by it. (Cue Phaedrus: “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.”)

The internet is an exploration machine; there’s a reason we call our portals to it “browsers.” What Bush was describing sounds to me like what you might get if you turned a browser history — the most neglected piece of the software — into a robust and fully featured machine of its own. It would help you map the path you charted through a web of knowledge, refine those maps, order them, and share them.

I don’t think anything like this exists. So Bush’s essay still transfixes me.

But the piece of Bush’s vision that dwells with me the most is the career he describes coming into being after his machine is commonplace. I’ve often called it the most beautiful definition of a journalist in the 21st Century I can think of:

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.

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Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages

So, whoa. The commonly accepted wisdom is that Vannevar Bush’s seminal As We May Think, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945, was the first time anyone had described something like the modern desktop computer and the World Wide Web. Not so, says Alex Wright in Glut: Mastering Information Through the Ages (@ Amazon). A Belgian chap named Paul Otlet described something called the “radiated library” — or the “televised book” — in 1934:

Here, the workspace is no longer cluttered with any books. In their place, a screen and a telephone within reach. Over there, in an immense edifice, are all the books and information. From there, the page to be read, in order to know the answer to the question asked by telephone, is made to appear on the screen. The screen could be divided in half, by four, or even ten if multiple texts and documents had to be consulted simultaneously. There would be a loudspeaker if the image had to be complemented by oral data and this improvement could continue to the automating the call for onscreen data. Cinema, phonographs, radio, television: these instruments, taken as substitutes for the book, will in fact become the new book, the most powerful works for the diffusion of human thought. This will be the radiated library and the televised book.

Sweet fancy Macintosh, if that’s not what we’re all doing right here on the web all day.

Much of the section in the book on Otlet was first published by Wright in a Boxes and Arrows essay called Forgotten Father: Paul Otlet. Wright’s extensive online bibliography for Glut should keep you busy for a few hours when you’re done with that. (I wish all the books I read were accompanied by such bibliographies.) I’ll also recommend a related read and one of my favorite technology books, The Victorian Internet by Tom Standage (@ Amazon):

It points out the features common to the telegraph networks of the nineteenth century and the internet of today: hype, skepticism, hackers, on-line romances and weddings, chat-rooms, flame wars, information overload, predictions of imminent world peace, and so on. In the process, I get to make fun of the internet, by showing that even such a quintessentially modern technology actually has roots going back a long way (in this case, to a bunch of electrified monks in 1746).

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to my televised book.

As We May Think by Vannevar Bush

As We May Think by Vannevar Bush. This influential essay that introduces Bush’s Memex concept was published 60 years ago this month.