As We May Think, Again
By R. D. Flavin

"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 (Bush 1945, pp. 106-107)."

Dr. Vannevar Bush (1890 – 1974) and the memex.

      The so-called “Information Age” is well under way with data sharing taking place between academics and laymen, the Fourth Estate and the Third World, the young and the old, the rich and the poor, and even (sometimes) between Democrats and Republicans.  Half of a millennium past Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg’s perfecting the process of moveable type, we're experiencing the advantageous presence of a large elephant in the room with us, or, abandoning the metaphor, the immense popularity of the personal computer.  Sure, many eureka moments and breakthroughs occurred which were necessary for the creation of the Internet and the World Wide Web and their operation from our bedrooms into the boardrooms and battlefields, but it was arguably the introduction of HTML (Hyper Text Mark-up Language) which allowed web-pages such as Flavin’s Corner to be viewed by...  Well, some web-pages are more successful in garnering readership than others.  While Theodor “Ted” Holm Nelson (Nelson 1965) is credited with the coining of “hypertext,” the concept was accurately envisioned some years previously by who many refer to as America’s first science advisor to the president, Dr. Vannevar Bush.

     After receiving doctorates in 1917 from M.I.T. and Harvard, in 1922 Bush co-founded the company which would later be known as Raytheon, one of America’s leading defense contractors.  Returning to M.I.T., Bush helped build the first operational differential analyser, a mechanical analog computer which solved differential equations with wheel and disc mechanisms through integration.  He later became the vice president and dean of engineering at M.I.T., followed by a position as the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington.  Bush then accepted the chairmanship of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics in 1939 as World War II was beginning.  In 1940, he became the chairman of the newly formed National Defense Research Committee, which was soon absorbed into the Office of Scientific Research and Development, with Bush as its director.  The Manhattan Project and the creation of the first atomic bomb was among his many responsibilities until the military took over the task in 1943.  As the war was winding down in early 1945, Dr. Bush reworked an earlier idea for a machine which could serve as an external memory storage unit.  Forgoing the rigors of peer-reviewed journal publishing, Dr. Bush instead chose to reach a general readership and published “As You May Think” in the July, 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  The article contained a detailed description of a hypothetical device known as the “memex,” likely a combination of “memory extender.”

     Dr. Bush projected that microfilm, at the time a standard archival material with an image reduction factor of 20, would one day be further miniaturized to a “linear ratio of 100.”  He wrote of a future set of the Encyclopedia Britannica reduced to the “volume of a matchbox” and sorted and imaged at “100 times” the 1945 computational speed of “100,000 a second.”  Yet, as genius goes, Bush added to advancements in decreasing size and increasing rapidity by introducing a means to open “trails” which would link specific words with associated facts, meanings, interpretations, and similar topics, or what in the current parlance is known as a “hyperlink.”  [Note: A later sketch of Bush’s memory extender, the “Memex II,” imagined the use of magnetic tape instead of microfilm (Bush 1991).]

     The data “trail” of Dr. Bush was intended to be expandable, updated as necessary, though structured to be relevant to only a single user (the owner of the memex).  As such, the hypothetical device was modeled on the human brain, albeit with techo-tricks to increase capacity and assist knowledge through association, not unlike ancient and medieval memory exercises in which memories were assigned to reside in various “rooms” in a large “house.”  While an average  human brain can send itself an estimated 10 quadrillion instructions per second and IBM's Blue Gene/L calculates at a mere 360 trillion operations per second, the computer doesn’t get bogged down with distractions (unless it’s running Windows Vista) and may be utilized by multiple users.

     Recently, Prof. Richard R. Yeo (Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane) compared the conclusions of two of the most important philosophers of the Enlightenment, John Locke and David Hume, with Bush's memex and assessed: “However, when considering how information, especially scientific data, should be stored and organized, they [Locke and Hume–RDF] made a radical break with natural memory.  They stressed the externalization of information in a manner that attempted to ensure against the fragilities and idiosyncrasies of memory.  The surprising fact is that Bush sought to recapitulate the associative patterns of individual memory in the search functions of the memex (Yeo 2007, p. 43).”  In other words, two Enlightenment philosophers argued for data sharing, but the mid-20th century “patron saint of American science” (Zachary 1997, p. 3) limited his projection to data selfishness. [Note: Yeah, that was sort of harsh, though in these hyper-critical times, even Dr. Bush’s first name, “Vannevar,” has become a jargon term for a failed design or prediction due to unrealistic expectations of future developments, said to be a reaction to Bush's prediction of futuristic massive electronic brains (passim Bush 1936).”]

     That “large elephant in the room with us” mentioned above, the personal computer, achieved its paradigmatic status initially with the establishment of the Internet (an international communication network enabling e-mail and its offshoot,
UseNet or “newsgroups,” for posting e-mail messages or media, grouped around a particular theme).  And, reaching back to Plato's reason for "invention," with the public introductions of HTML and the World Wide Web, ca. 1991-1993, the basis for much-needed commercialization was established.  However, excruciatingly slow download speeds made “Surfing the Internet” akin to crawling on one’s hands and knees across rugged terrain.  Then, year by year, speeds increased, prices for personal computers decreased, and the knowledge and media hungry masses were hooked.  Indeed, for several years now, there have been a constant stream of academic articles on whether Internet Addiction Disorder (IAD) is a genuine problem like excessive gambling or watching (read: believing) FOX News

Google logo, Google's Eric Schmidt, and a reading room at Harvard's Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library.

     When I first went “online” in 1996, I used the Alta Vista search engine for exploring the Web.  I switched to Google around 1999 and continue to benefit from its various applications and services.  As the verb “to Google” was accepted by both the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2006, it'd be a safe bet that I wasn’t alone in a reliance on Googling. [Note: Blatant plug – the search engine also makes a superfast spell checker!]

     According to one recent estimate, Google is now the world’s most valuable brand name at $100 billion, surpassing Microsoft and Coke.  Me thinks there’s some fuzzy math in the guess, but even if the actual value is just half that amount, it’s an awful lot of veggie pizzas and cases of bottled water!  With such an overwhelming market-share, it comes as a bit of a surprise that Google Inc.’s CEO, Dr. Eric E. Schmidt, would advise the 2009 University of Pennsylvania graduating class to use computers, then turn them off and experience  Life?  Is there an iPhone app for that?

     As a writer, researcher, and unabashed bibliophile with a footnote fetish (yeah, finding a mistake in the OED was like winning a lottery), I deeply appreciate such online services as those offered by JSTOR, Google Scholar, Tuft’s Perseus Digital Library, Project Gutenberg, and many others, yet all of these fine services remain inferior to the material available at most major university libraries (contra Jacso 2005).  Sure, it might take longer, but the rewards and surety of exactitude is well worth wandering the stacks or filling out request slips.  And, as occasionally happens, if a book, journal, or other publication is not available, there’s always inter-library loans.  I’d amend Schimdt’s advice to encourage folks to use their computers as much as they can, but never forget the wealth of resources available offline.

The Matrix.

     At the end of The Matrix Revolutions (Warner Brothers 2003), the evil Elrond program is destroyed and the most excellent Ted Logan has sacrificed himself to free meatspace from mecha-corporate wetware bundling, and things looked okay.  Reality was restored to humans and machines returned to answering questions instead of asking them.    The Wachowski Brothers, the writers and producers of the Matrix trilogy, were at one point rumored to be the Wachowski brother and sister team, as one took to drag and there was speculation of an imminent sex-change operation, but the brothers remained brothers and all male parts are accounted for (although their 2008 live-action version of the classic ur-anime cartoon, Speed Racer, was more than a tad wussy).  Still, kudos to a resolution of one aspect of the omniverse and I can only hope our descendants finally defeat Skynet with or without the help of Batman and Conan.

     Sigh, that was a personal non sequitur, and particularly pleasurable.  Another?  Tomorrow, 5-31-09, is the twelfth anniversary of the first Flavin’s Corner installment published in the online ‘zine, The Greenwich Village Gazette, and I’ve had a dozen years of fun writing these columns.  My approach to hyperlinks has met with approval by most readers and, unfortunately, disapproval by some.  It’s a new way of writing and when it works,!  Now, as to my inclusion of uncredited photographs borrowed (read: stolen) from other web-sites, I offer a grin and wish that copyright laws protect me as a non-profit.  As to topics?  Meh...  Education and entertainment have been the goals, and if a reader can’t take a joke, maybe they can learn something.  Gulp (insert a beverage of choice), here’s to another dozen... 

Bush, Vannevar.  1945.  “As We May Think.”  The Atlantic Monthly.  July, 1945; pp. 101-108.
Bush, Vannevar.  1953.  “We are in danger of building a Tower of Babel.”  Public Health Reports.  68, 2: 149- 152.
Bush, Vannevar.  1991. “Memex II.”  In From Memex to Hypertext:Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine.  Edited by James M. Nyce and
  Paul Kahn.  Boston: Academic Press.
Jacso, Peter.  2005.  “As we may search – Comparison of major features of the Web of Science, Scopus, and Google Scholar
citation-based and citation-enhanced databases.”  Current Science.  89, 9: 1537-1547.
Nelson, Theodor H.  1965.  "Complex information processing: a file structure for the complex, the changing and the indeterminate".
  ACM/CSC-ER Proceedings of the 1965 20th National Conference.  New York: ACM Press, pp. 84-100.
Yeo, Richard.  2007. “Before Memex: Robert Hooke, John Locke, and Vannevar Bush on External Memory.”  Science in Context.  20, 1:
Zachary, G. Pascal.  1997.  Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century. New York: The Free Press.

Hitting the stacks

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