« I like converstations. | Home | Lost and Found in Cyberspace »

April 25, 2010

Good intentions don't go far enough.

After reading the article, “Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex” by Michael Buckland and watching the video that gave a basic view of how the Memex would work (if it was ever created) I feel like I can say with confidence that it is a good thing no one ever took the time, energy and money to actually make this thing.

The quote that I feel proves this argument is “Vannevar Bush’s famous paper “As We May Think” (1945) described an imaginary information retrieval machine, the Memex.” This quote, along with a few others say “imaginary machine,” which puts in to mind, that it is a good thing that this machine was never made, since I don't think it would have done very well after the imaginary phase. Especially after watching the video and then again after reading larger parts of this article, I was left thinking Me-what? Like why waste the resources on making this thing that probably wouldn’t work. That is a lot going to waste on this thing.

Which, I obviously feel wouldn’t work, although throughout the article it says this invention would have created “associative trails” for information to connect to other information that relates to other information that relates to this thing that relates to these notes that relate to this other thing over here. Excuse me, I know this was thought of before hypertext but I’m really glad people held off on making this thing. Such a waste of space. I love that through the internet and the ability to easily link to different things we have this kind of idea, but it takes up how much space? Basically none. This machine thing (which actually looks like the kind of machine I use to imagine was in each of our brains to file information) would take up so much space and there is no way all of the information that related to each other would ever be able to be connected properly, we can’t even do that with links, let alone something that takes up physical space.

Good riddance, Memex idea. Hello, links. (Or at least trying to link everything.)


13 Blessed is the man who finds wisdom,
the man who gains understanding,
14 for she is more profitable than silver
and yields better returns than gold.
Proverbs 3:13-14 http://bit.ly/bYGKex

I chose to discuss the same quote as you, Chelsea, and I basically feel exactly the same way. The memex would never have worked, which is why no one has attempted to make it since then. You mentioned that hypertext creates these "associative trails" that Bush was trying for. The way that you understood it, it does seem like the Internet is able to create such trails, and I really like the examples you give here. I saw it as more of a connection to the individual human mind though, something that the Internet cannot really accomplish--yet. We can have preferences and favorites, but not in the way that Bush was striving for. If you have some time, take a look at my blog.


Erica, I did notice on your blog that you took a different approach with it being more of the way humans think and how we are able to relate different things together based on smells and various other things and I liked that. Here, I was trying to show an aspect of something that I think at least comes close in comparison to the Memex idea that actually is effective and works in our world. Whereas, I don't think we will ever be able to create something that works like the human brain through knowledge and the senses.

If I had to use the memex or the internet, I'd choose the internet. But what if the choice were between the memex or the card catalog?

What aspect of your response, Chelsea and Erica, comes from the fact that you already know and depend upon technology that is even better than what was, at the time Bush was writing, still beyond our technical capabilities?

That's a good point Dr. Jerz, but I think I'd choose the card catalog over the memex. I barely remember how to even use a card catalog, but from what I do remember, it was as concise as it could be for the time and was easy to use. I think if we were able to use the memex, it wouldn't be even that easy just because it is trying to do so much and relate so many things together and I just think that trying to do so many things at once sets a machine like that up for failure.

From what I remember of the card catalog it was as simple as it could be (which I feel the internet is simple) and that's what made it work. Whereas the memex is so complex it wouldn’t be wise to ever create.

What would you say to the monk in the video, who prefers the familiarity of the scroll to the complexity of the codex? How useful would a dictionary or other reference book be in the form of a scroll? What benefits come from the complexity of the codex? What does Vannevar Bush say is the benefit that comes from the complexity he describes?

The card catalog was organized with a card for the author, a card for the title, and possibly a card for the subject. Would Hamlet be filed under "Literature" or "Drama" "Tragedy" or "Danish mythology" or "Graveyards in Literature"?

For each subject, the librarian would have to make a duplicate card -- that is, type it out on a manual typewriter -- so in practice they would file each item under only a few subject headings. ("Graveyards in literature would be far too obscure for any librarian to make a card about, so if you were interested in graveyards, you'd have to have read Hamlet first in order to know that there's a graveyard scene in Hamlet.)

Bush's vision of connected texts would let any user create a chain that ties page 212 of a 2007 book by Bill Smith to page 103 of a 1990 book by Jim Jones, lets you label this connection "graveyards in literature" (or whatever) and lets you add further connections as you read, creating any number of further connections, under the same subject heading or different ones, and further lets you share your connections others, and read (and add to) the chains of connections created by others. If you read a chain someone else created, you could call up each page in the chain and read the rest of the book, or add new pages to the chain.

By contrast, for the card catalog, only the librarian decided what books would be cataloged under what subjects, and that was it. If you didn't agree with the organizational structure the librarian chose, you couldn't change it or modify it for your own purposes.

Well, true the card catalog was only able to be changed by one person and the Memex would have been changed by many (like the internet) but, the makers of the card catalog knew its limitations. I feel like Bush didn't realize how impossible the Memex would have been to actually use, which is what I meant in this entry.

Much like Erica said in her blog, the Memex would have never been able to live up to the expectations of working the way the human brain works by relating everything through past experiences, smells, other readings, another class, notes from someone else and so on. I don't think that any machine, ever, will be able to work the way the human brain can and I think that's what Bush was wanting out of this project.

Also, the Memex physically would have taken up a lot of space, wasted space in my opinion, since it wouldn't have worked as nicely as a card catalog or as effciently as the internet. Could you imagine how many Memex machines you would need in a single space to add up to all of the information that is in a library? Or in a random bookstore or, since we're on this topic, how much information is in someone's brain?

So yes, you may be right that the Memex could have worked but if it would have done so well, why was it never made?

Well, Michelangelo never built any of his flying machines, and there were hundreds of years of people thinking up but not building working flying machines... the history of aviation does not consider all those false starts and failed attempts to be worthless, because the Wright brothers built on both the successes and the false starts of their predecessors.

At the time Bush was writing, microfilming and miniaturization was all the rage, and as Bush describes it, the memex would have fit inside an ordinary desk. So, rather than thinking of the extra space that would require, it might be useful to think instead that anyone could have the contents of a whole library at their fingertips just by making room for one desk. That was a pre-internet way of imagining having instant access to information, at a time when "access" meant "storing a local copy."

Dr. Jerz, I understand all of the points you are making. But my personal opinion of, the Memex would have been a waste and would not have worked as well as expected, still holds true, despite any attempts at trying to change my mind.

Yes, I've noticed! But please understand, my point is not to get you to change your mind about whether the memex would have worked. We're in agreement on that -- the tech of the time was not up to the task.

But what about, on a more general level, the value of *reading* about the memex, and the ideas it represents? While we don't employ the *means* he proposed, the internet of today does let us work with documents in ways that echo all the important things that Bush *wished* he could do (calling up any page, linking pages, copying notes, compiling pages, sharing the result). He spelled all that out 50 or so years before anyone could actually do them.

I see that topic--the value of reading about the memex and its precursors--as very different from an opinion over whether the memex would have worked.

But don't worry... I'm not upset or anything. The comments I've posted here are just a few of the many responses that your blog entries have sparked this term, so feel free to direct your intellectual energies elsewhere.

Leave a comment