Tuesday, September 16, 2008

What is the Legacy of the Memex?

In 1945, Vannevar Bush, the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development wrote an article for The Atlantic Monthly called "As We May Think." During the war, Bush had been in charge of coordinating the research of six thousand American scientists as they attempted to apply their expertise to the battlefield. However, with the war at a close, Bush clearly crafted the paper for a civilian audience. Bush's main point is that we have accumulated a giant body of research, but we have not figured out how to organized knowledge so that it is immediately accessible.  With the war over, Bush asks, "What are the scientists to do next?" (1). "As We May Think" is Bush's answer to this question. His foresight was remarkable. He essentially sketched out what we now call the personal computer, the internet, Google and Web 2.0 all wrapped up in one, imaginative concept he called the "Memex."  Bush and his Memex influenced many of the luminaries in the fields of computer science and human-computer interaction (HCI), therefore, how can we characterize the impact of the Memex?

What is a Memex?
The Memex was a "sort of mechanized private file and library...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 4).  What Bush imagined was essentially a modern desktop computer with internet access and a large hard drive. He describes the user building a "trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him" (4).  In fact, he even imagines saved searches, "And his trails do not fade" (4). He describes the idea of Google, "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" (12).  The Memex is capable of calling up Web 2.0 and Wikipedia-style collective intelligence technologies: "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" (4).

Influence of The Memex
Bush and the Memex have had a remarkably long and deep influence in the world HCI.  J.C.R. Licklider, one of the most important figures in the history of computing, HCI and the birth of the internet, credited Bush in the introduction to his 1965 book Libraries of the Future for defining the "information problem" (Stefik 23).  Another visionary directly influenced by Bush and the Memex was Doug Engelbart.  Engelbart was a genius far ahead of his time.  He invented the mouse, and he was using computers for video conferencing back in the 1960s ("Internet Pioneers").  In a 1962 letter to Bush, he cites "As We May Think" as a key influence in his own thinking:
Stanford Research Institute
Menlo Park, California
May 24, 1962

Dr. Vannevar Bush
Professor Emeritus
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Dear Dr. Bush:

I wish permission from you to extract lengthy and definitely acknowledged quotes from your article, "As We May Think," that appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, July, 1945.  These quotes would appear in a report that I am writing for the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and I am sending a parallel request to The Atlantic Monthly.

For your information I am enclosing a relatively brief and quite general writeup describing the program that I am trying to develop here at Stanford Research Institute.  The report which I am writing (and for which I am requesting quotation permission from you) is a detailed description of the conceptual structure that I have developed over the years to orient my pursuit of this objective of increasing the individual human's intellectual effectiveness.  It will also contain a number of examples of the way in which new equipment can lead to new methods and improved effectiveness, to illustrate my more general (but non-numerical) framework, and your article is quite the best that I have found in print to offer examples of this.
I might add that this article of yours has probably influenced me quite basically.  I remember finding it and avidly reading it in a Red Cross library on the edge of the jungle on Leyte, one of the Phillipine [sic] Islands, in the Fall of 1945.

Engelbart goes on to say:

I re-discovered your article about three years ago, and was rather startled to realized how much I had aligned my sights along the vector you had described. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the reading of this article sixteen and a half years ago hadn't had a real influence upon the course of my thoughts and actions (Nyce and Kahn 235).

At a 1972 conference on interactive computing, Ted Nelson, the man who created hypertext, gave a talk titled "As We Will Think." Nelson wrote:
In this paper, an effort in counter-discipleship, I hope to remind readers of what Bush did and did not say, and point out what is not yet recognized: that much of what he predicted is possible now; the Memex is here; the 'trails' he spoke of--suitably generalized, and now called hypertexts--may, and should, become the principal publishing form of the future (Nyce and Kahn 245).
Nelson's postion--that hypertext should be the primary publishing format--is provacative, and it is illustrates again the powerful influence of Vannevar Bush.

Should I Record All My Life Bits?
Aside from influencing some of the key players at the dawn of the internet and computing, the Memex continues to inspire creative projects in the 21st century.  One of the most fascinating is the Microsoft funded, MyLifeBits, which describes itself as "a lifetime store of everything. It is the fulfillment of Vannevar Bush's 1945 Memex vision including full-text search, text & audio annotations, and hyperlinks. There are two parts to MyLifeBits: an experiment in lifetime storage, and a software research effort" (MyLifeBits).  In a 2007 article, the creators of the project, Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, lay out their vision:

Our team at Microsoft Research has begun a quest to digitally chronicle every aspect of a person's life, starting with one of our own lives (Bell's). For the past six years, we have attempted to record all of Bell's communications with other people and machines, as well as the images he sees, the sounds he hears and the Web sites he visits--storing everything in a personal digital archive that is both searchable and secure. (MyLifeBits)
In addition, Bell and Gemmell argue that:

Digital memories can do more than simply assist the recollection of past events, conversations and projects. Portable sensors can take readings of things that are not even perceived by humans, such as oxygen levels in the blood or the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. Computers can then scan these data to identify patterns: for instance, they might determine which environmental conditions worsen a child's asthma...After six years, Bell has amassed a digital archive of more than 300,000 records, taking up about 150 gigabytes of memory (1).

Is this the "fulfillment" of Bush's vision, as the creators suggest, or is this a misguided corruption?  What are the possible emotional pitfalls of human-life-as-database?  If we are not worried about the impact on ourselves then we should ask what our loved ones will do with all this digital stuff once we are gone.  In short, if the dream of the Memex is embodied in MyLifeBits, shouldn't someone ask whether or not this is a good thing?  The creators of the project begin their article by stating "Human memory can be maddeningly elusive" (1).  They go on to argue that, "digital memories allow one to vividly relive an event with sounds and images, enhancing personal reflection in much the same way that the Internet has aided scientific investigations. Every word one has ever read, whether in an e-mail, an electronic document or on a Web site, can be found again with just a few keystrokes" (1).

The assumption behind this statement is that humans want to remember everything, that somehow letting memories slip away is a problem.  Don't we need to let certain memories fade?  Isn't the fading of memory part of the healing and learning process?  If I can call up every mistake I have ever made in text or video or audio, I am fairly certain I would go mad.  Bush proposed Memex with the goal of organizing knowledge.  MyLifeBits challenges our idea of knowledge, or at least, self-knowledge.  I do realize that I possess a fairly large archive of email, dating back probably ten years now.  And I know that I rarely consult this archive.  However, what if that archive were more fully integrated into my life?  For example, what happens when our personal history records are merged with everyday knowledge searches?  Google has already stated that they hope to integrate historical newspapers with normal searches, so that your results turn up, essentially, everything (Soni).  Desktop searching has improved dramatically as well, with technologies like Apple's Spotlight constantly indexing every file on your computer.  Will we be able to move forward emotionally when our multimedia past is so accessible?  How will grieving family members deal with fifty years of email, text messages and phone conversations.  The dream of the Memex, as embodied in MyLifeBits and supported by a confluence of other technologies (Google, cheap storage, light and powerful digital camcorders, wide access to broadband and so forth) is not just changing our relationship to our present, but it has the potential to dramatically change our relationship with our past.  Was this what Vannevar Bush hoped for, or have we misinterpreted his dream?  Perhaps it is not a question worth asking.  Like tree roots growing around a large rock, the technology will always find a way to build itself, despite any objections or obstacles.  However, it is our responsibility to take responsibility for our inventions.  Computers have evolved from the distant, impersonal room-sized mystery boxes, to the personal computer and now we are on the brink of intimate computing.

Bush's vision of a "new profession of trail blazers" seems to have manifested itself in the form of Google (and other search technologies).  However, if humans are armed with the intimate technologies of the MyLifeBits project then we all become Google. We all become digital trailblazers, marking trails not of the "common record" but of our own record, which could then be integrated with the common record. Bush described a future researcher in his lab, "His hands are free, and he is not anchored" (6).  Technological optimists always seem to dream of a future in which more and better technology will liberate us from tedious work. MyLifeBits, I argue, will not liberate but shackle humans to their own past. MyLifeBits provides clear evidence that Vannevar Bush's Memex has had wide ranging influence in the world of HCI, but whether or not we ultimately benefit from the dream of the Memex is unclear.

Works Cited

Bell, Gordon, and Jim Gemmell. “A Digital Life.” Scientific American Feb 2007. 16 Sep 2008.

Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." The Atlantic Monthly July 1945.
“Internet Pioneers.” 16 Sep 2008.
“MyLifeBits Project.” 16 Sep 2008.
Nyce, James M., and Paul Kahn. From Memex To Hypertext. San Diego, CA: Academic Press, Inc., 1991.
Soni, P. "Bringing History Online, One Newspaper at a Time." Weblog entry. The Official Google Blog. 9 Sep. 2008. Google, Inc. 9 Sept. 16.
Stefik, Mark, and Cerf, Vinton. Internet Dreams: Archetypes, Myths and Metaphors. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997. 16 Sep 2008.

1 comment:

UiGrrl said...

I'm responding to this as a student a year later - but has anyone seen Caprica? Movie whose content is supposed forerunner to the Battlestart Galactica series. the device called the "holoban" uncannily manifests an idea of the My Life Bits, restoring a person to "almost" the real person, so much that the hologram cannot even distinguish that they are not really the real person...go see it. I had just read this article then saw that movie - wow.