27 Apr 2010 [ Prev | Next ]

Memex & Buckland

In 1946, Vannevar Bush published "As We May Think" (I assigned it in EL236, but I'm not assigning the whole article this time -- this online handout should provide you with what you need to know).  It provides you with background information that will help you understand the assigned text, which is Buckland's analysis of the pre-history of the imaginary machine Bush described.

Bush proposed (but nobody ever built) a mechanical device that would permit a reader to locate, annotate, and connect individual microfilm pages. 

The actions he describes seem trivial to us today, just as a photocopier, or a spill-proof ball-point pen, or an eraser-tipped pencil are so much a part of our scholarly life that we can hardly comprehend their revolutionary impact upon our productivity.

Writing in the mid 20th century, Bush observed that, due in part to the technology that makes it easier to publish, human knowledge is expanding at a rate faster than the individual researcher can hope to keep up. Individual researchers are spending an increasing amount of time sifting through the not-so-good stuff, in the hopes of finding the good stuff. 

Our experience of researching is materially different. When we find a database query returns thousands of hits, it's trivial for us to supply different search terms, and narrow our focus. But just a generation ago, vising a well-stocked library, with hundreds of books on each subject, would require the researcher to spend a huge amount of time filtering the potential selections -- picking them up, flipping through them, and deciding which ones were worth further time.

Bush proposed the "memex" as a tool that would help scholars locate, comment on, and connect information. It would make copies of individual pages from different sources, and assemble them -- along with the researcher's hand-written notes -- in a microfilm codex, which could be stored, duplicated, shared, and further modified.

Here's how Wikipedia describes the machine and its uses:
The memex is a device in which an individual compresses and stores all of their books, records, and communications which is then mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. A document can be given a simple numerical code that allows the user to access it after dialing the number combination. Documents are also able to be edited in real-time. This process makes annotation fast and simple. The memex is an enlarged intimate supplement to one's memory. [2] The memex has influenced the development of subsequential hypertext and intellect augmenting computer systems. A memex consists of a desk, where on top are slanting translucent screens on which material can be projected for convenient reading. Within the desk were mechanisms that stored information through microphotography. Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. When a longhand note, photograph, memoranda, and other things are in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed. -- "Memex" (Wikipedia)
Here's a video that attempts to illustrate the operation of the memex.

While the specific technological solutions that Bush proposed seem antiquated, he was spot on when he predicted the result when instant location, connection, and annotation became universal parts of the scholarly process.
Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities....The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. ... The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. 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. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected. --Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think"
Compare the final part of the above quote to the complaint of Socrates -- that the written word cannot capture the full range of knowledge that we find in the brain of a teacher.  And consider what we have already discussed about how our definition of "knowledge" changes when we are confident that we can look up an answer, and so we change our focus from memorizing information that would otherwise be lost, to memorizing the strategies (such as alphabetization or keyword look-ups) that will help us find specific information when we need it.

Finally, read this recent academic study that describes the precursors to the memex.
Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, And Vannevar Bush's Memex (Michael K. Buckland)
The various parts of the above document are not all of the same interest to our course. Let me try to help you prioritize.
  1. I suggest that you read the abstract and the first few sections, through "The Technology of the Memex."
  2. Beginning with "Microfilm selectors," skim the next few pages -- that level of technical information is not really pertinent to a theory course like ours.. 
  3. Slow down so that you get the gist of "Emmanuel Goldberg," "1931 International Congress of Photography" and "Who Knew What When?"
  4. Slow down even more, and read for comprehension get to "The European Documentalists" and "Bush Reassessed."
  5. Before you read the conclusion, go back and read the abstract again.
  6. Now read "Conclusions."
Note that the plan I just outlined for you -- knowing when to read for detail, when to read for comprehension, and what to skip -- is exactly the kind of knowledge Bush hoped his memex would let scholars share, automatically and routinely. I would give a different list of priorities for a different audience, in a different class, reading for a different purpose.



I don't really get what the big idea is about Bush's so-called invention.

Best. Blog. Ever.

Great minds think alike, even when on different continents so long as they exist around the same time.

Microfilming again? It's still not growing on me...

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Recent Comments

Jessie Krehlik on Memex & Buckland: http://blogs.setonhill.edu/JessicaKrehlik/2010/04/
Jessie Krehlik on Memex & Buckland: Microfilming again? It's still not growing on me..
Megan Seigh on Memex & Buckland: Hello and goodbye. http://blogs.setonhill.edu/Mega
Maddie Gillespie on Memex & Buckland: Great minds think alike, even when on different co
Sean Maiolo on Memex & Buckland: Best. Blog. Ever.
Chelsea Oliver on Memex & Buckland: Ew, Memex. http://blogs.setonhill.edu/ChelseaOlive
Tiffany Gilbert on Memex & Buckland: http://blogs.setonhill.edu/TiffanyGilbert/2010/04/
Erica Gearhart on Memex & Buckland: I don't really get what the big idea is about Bush
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