What do you think of this?
[It] 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… memory.
[It has] slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading.
Most of the … contents are purchased… Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is a provision for direct entry. On top… is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a causes it to be photographed.
The author then goes on to describe how the built-in camera will work.
Sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it? When they go on sale, I may well buy one. So what is it?
It is the Memex (MEMory EXtendor) – described by Vannevar Bush in his article his essay in The Atlantic As We May Think, published in 1945 (and you should definitely read it). Bush was primarily concerned with how to cope with what he saw as an overwhelming amount of information available to people, especially researchers.
There is a growing mountain of research. We are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers – conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember.
The difficult seems to be not so much that we publish unduly… but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record… [It] must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.
Creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are… powerful mechanical aids.
The quotes from the Bush article are from the book Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell. The book is about using technology to extend memory, much as Bush was. The description of the Memex made me think of what people are currently saying about the iPad (though I’m obviously not the first one to have this thought). Although, it sounds like it would be a lot easier to get data into a Memex, so the iPad is maybe only half-way there. That’s one of the reasons that I’m not so excited about it. I don’t need a portable library. Well, ok, I do, but that’s not the most important thing that I need. More importantly, I need a portable digital memory – and that requires data input.
The larger point is one that I’ve made before: information overload has been around for a long time. Bush’s worries sound pretty familiar to us right now – there’s too much stuff to keep track of.
And the problem started even before World War II – junk mail was invented in the 19th century. Check this out from the NYT:
But a decade or so later, when Britain and the United States introduced cheap, flat postal rates, without regard to the number of sheets or distance traveled, correspondents enjoyed something like our unmetered broadband today. Communication became more frequent, and ties were strengthened among families and friends. But cheap rates also led to junk mail and postal scams.
In Victorian London, though service wasn’t 24/7, it was close to 12/6. Home delivery routes would go by every house 12 times a day — yes, 12. In 1889, for example, the first delivery began about 7:30 a.m. and the last one at about 7:30 p.m. In major cities like Birmingham by the end of the century, home routes were run six times a day.
That’s why I think that As We May Think is so prescient – the idea that we should outsource remembering things that are easily written down so that our brain can concentrate on creating novel ideas is exactly right. Creative thinking is how we make new connections between ideas – and this is the source of innovation, and the source of value. Anything that frees up cycles in our heads for this is valuable. That’s why I’d buy a Memex. I’m looking forward to someone actually building one.