A phrase that every student of information science becomes acquainted with quickly is “Vannevar Bush’s classic article “As We May Think,”…” followed by some discourse on the evolution of information science/the Internet/technology/etc. Bush’s article is a classic for a reason – published in 1945 in The Atlantic, it provided a conceptual and operational framework for “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex 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 his memory.”
While framed in the context of contemporary technologies – it was essentially an enormous desk with many drawers for storage of, and screens for display of, microfilm, microphone for voice notes, keyboard and levers for manipulation – the process Bush describes is unmistakable as the exact one which has emerged with the combination of desktop computing and the Internet. Bush notes as much in saying, “All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.”
I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about memexes lately, due to a project on which I’ve begun working, the goal of which is to rethink approaches to instruction and learning (in this particular case) by engaging students in spaces of social media, by meeting them where they are (literally and figuratively). In our early meetings we’ve settled on an approach that emphasizes not some single device as a memex, or on a black box of software to manage these informational relations, but rather an process that first identifies needed capacities and then utilizes current best-available offerings for them.
In this particular case, we will be heavily using many of the big name-brands in social media: Facebook, Flickr, Google Docs, and perhaps one or two other. In part this is because these services just work, but another contributing factor is, of course, the fact that many students are already “there.” The key underlying consideration is how to most seamlessly integrate the various streams of data between and within different services, and different students – “the process of tying two items together,” itself the underlying principle of the Internet.
This same theme came up earlier this morning in a conversation with Paul Jones about Web2.0 generally, and why an information science approach understands questions that computer scientists find beside the point. As he noted, AJAX is nothing special – it’s the understanding of the associative human elements of online communications that make Web2.0 approaches interesting and useful. Computers and the Internet are at a point of working, reliably – now it’s a matter of figuring out people.
And that, ultimately, is going to be the pivot point of any memex approach (which is to say, any PIM approach)- not a single magical AI repository that tells us who we are and what we want, but a flexible suite of applications, places, and most crucially, ways of connecting with other people, that can help us adapt to our own changing circumstances and needs.