martes, 4 de noviembre de 2008

Predicting the Web (II) - As We May Think

The profound technological and engineering perspective this text has is remarkable in as long as science administrator Vannevar Bush, wanted to provoke a shift in scientific efforts from physical abilities regarding science information to more accessible collection of human knowledge (using the technology available at that time). The date of firs publication is important, since we have to situate this text in the last months of World War II.

The whole text is devoted to explain how this change may be possible, and thus summarizes his ideas with the development of his own system: the MEMEX (an acronym for Memory Extender). It was basically an electromechanical device that could be used to read, search for and add information, as well as to follow links/notes that the user (and others) may possibly produce. In other words, he was proposing a proto-hypertext computer system.

In his visionary project, the ability to connect, annotate and share published works and personal trails would change the process by which the “world's record” is created and used. That makes us to come back to the idea of accessing and retrieving information (Bush found this idea very important, since the main problem in our “information society” is not so much the quantity/quality of information and knowledge as the access to this information. He argues that we can literally get lost in a bunch of information in case of, for instance, scientific research. Therefore, his Memex proposal should allow an easy and more comfortable access to and retrieve of the information.

In addition to that, Bush though the Memex should work through an association of ideas. Whereas data storage in alphabetical/numercial order assumes the information to be in only one place and forces the searcher to follow a track operating through class and subclass (the best example of that is a regular library), the Memex system should work through an association of ideas. “Our mind jumps instantly to the information below. This jump is suggested by an association of ideas, followeing some intricate web of roads formed by cells in the brain”, Bush notes. That way Memex would emulate human brains operating forms.

Just to make all this a bit more concrete, this is how his prototypical Memex should look like. Although it looks really old-fashioned and kind of non-operative for our current standards, that didn't really matter because this project was never eventually executed as the whole investigation falled apart.

Why is this text so important? I think the time when it was written makes it really visionary. The author predicted many kinds of technology invented after the publication of the text (such as Hypertext, the Personal Computer, the Internet or the WWW). To show you an example of that, I think this definition (quoted from the text):
“The Enclyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk".
could be a good definition of what Wikipedia is right know (some differences may be acknowledged).

Anyways, the main contributions of this text are remarkable:

- terms and notions that after became popular: link, connection, web
- a change in our reading and writing order, as well as appearance of the WREADER category (mixture of writer and reader)
- intuiton of virtual textuality (the information did not need to be stored in paper)
- information stored in path-based systems

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