As We May Think

Vannevar Bush
Vannevar Bush

As part of the Coursera HCI course I’m taking I read over Vannevar Bush’s 1945 essay ‘As We May Think’ and it’s quite possibly the most prescient thing I’ve read. I encountered it first in college in relation to Ted Nelson’s Project Xanadu. In the essay Bush explores the possibility of non-linear indexing of information (the ‘memex’ – a name he admits coining at random) that would be more in keeping with the associative nature of mental recall. He talks about using a microfilm that could easily store an abundance of knowledge which could be called upon with ease rather than having to step through a catalogue. In this way items of interest could be jumped to immediately:

“Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. “

It’s this that forms that basis of what was later know as ‘hypertext’ – non-linear linking by association. Bush takes it to the next level by sketching out a system in which the user creates their own associative links between items. For example, if the user is researching a topic they can create connections (or ‘trails’) between items of relevant to that topic:

“This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing…

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.”

This sounds, to me, a lot like Evernote though just a slight echo of it. Unfortunately the web as it stands doesn’t function as much like this as we’d probably like. Rather than relying on distinct products (e.g. Evernote, Pocket etc. ) to make those associations (and to take them away at will) wouldn’t it have been better to have something like this built into the spec were the associations (links) go two ways and were we can thread our own associations without a) fear that the link will die and b) to see both ways (in and out) of a link. This is much in keeping with Jaron Lanier’s criticism of the web as it is currently implemented:

“In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. … Two-way linking would preserve context. It’s a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn’t have vaster implications for culture and the economy.”

That said we are closer to Bush’s projected vision now than could have been conceived by most at the time and it’s that which makes the essay such an important work. :

“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.”

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