In pursuit of Memex
How generations of scientists and engineers pursued the vision of the Memex (personal memory expansion) laid out by American scientist Vannevar Bush—and where we are today.
What did the atomic bomb have to do with the birth of the world wide web? How a scientist behind the Manhattan project inspired the generational pursuit of memex (personal “memory expansion”), from the pc to the web to AI note-organizers today.
Vannevar Bush, an influential American scientist who directed the development of military R&D during WWII, published the seminal article “As We May Think” in 1945 ard the time of atomic bombings, where he ralled for science to turn towards creation rather than destruction.
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He appealed for scientific minds to steer efforts towards augmenting human thinking, in particular “how creative [people] think”, which he described as an “association of ideas” through an “intricate web of trails” rather than linear indexing.
In his view, the inability to retrieve & select information through a large memex rapidly was a “roadblock”, and envisoned a day where “a great mass of material shall be handled so that the individual can draw from it what he needs—instantly, correctly, and with utter freedom”.
The seminal article inspired many brilliant minds to imagine and architect information infrastructure like hypertext, the pc, and the worldwide web. Today, arguably, the ability to quickly retrieve relevant data from a large memex is no longer a roadblock.
The most relevant advances in technology allow for:
1. automated clustering and retrieval
2. aggregation of information from multiple mediums and formats (text, audio, ocr for scanned docs, etc)
3. generative summaries (which Bush hadn’t predicted, but is arguably seminal)
While the IA is moving towards associative indexing, how might we break out of UI originally designed for the linear index? Some speculative designs here:
1. Referential sidebars: Writing app with a smart sidebar that pulls up related archives based on key words.
2. Conversational search engine: Retrieve information through chat. Never click-to-dig through folders again.
3. Collaborative associations: Sync your personal research database with trusted peers. Co-build research repos.
4. Generative summaries: App clusters and generates summaries for you to review. Swipe left to dismiss, right to accept, up to build on ideas.
This is the first of a series called "cont:xt", an anthropological-futurist tracing of technology and culture. If you enjoyed this, follow for more!
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