"Now, says Dr. Bush, instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages." - Editor, The Atlantic Monthly 1945 introducing "As We May Think" an article by Dr Vannevar Bush.
Since 1945, instruments in particular computers, software and the Internet have been developed to provide access to more information, but they are not enough to give command over it, particularly the information needed for collaborative endeavours.
"Thus far we seem to be worse off than before — for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it."
This article explains how current technology should now be extended by taking up those of Bush’s proposals that have been disregarded for so many years. "As We May Think" is so strong it is quoted extensively (in italics). But unlike Bush's vision, the instruments already exist and techniques devised; the scheme can be started.
Scheme is not a word commonly associated with information technology, but what is described below is neither a product nor a system; it is a scheme for working. In a similar way that bar coding has a significant influence on the efficiency of supermarket business, this scheme results in inherent control, dynamic accountability and significantly lower costs in everyday work that relies on diverse information from diverse sources.
"It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk."
This picture of memex was constructed from Bush’s description.
Perhaps the maker of the picture was overly influenced by the appearance of laptop computers, but the components are essentially true to those described. The desktop, keyboard, multiple screens and horizontal lever are fascinating in terms of foresight, but it is the vertical lever and platen that have not been appropriately transformed into chips, software and plastic. Throwing the lever links pieces of information on adjacent screens.
"This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing."
Links are stored for re-use and communication with others but there is no provision for this in the more popular Internet browsers, nor is there an equivalent of the platen to insert users’ information into existing. Instead surfing and browsing are on offer, activities alien to the notion of productive working.
"Technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored, certainly, but also ignored are means as yet unknown which may come any day to accelerate technical progress as violently as did the advent of the thermionic tube."
The 2000 version of memex could look like this:
and it may not; there are so many possibilities with modern technology. However, it makes sense to keep the need for training to a minimum. People should not be required to learn much more than how to select items on the screen with a mouse or stylus.
The components of the updated memex are all neatly brought together in an application designed for palm top computers. Multiple screens are made as blocks or layers, hypermedia and scripts substitute the levers and codes Bush describes and the remaining original mechanisms fall prey to a small number of the familiar features of the graphical user interface. The computer industry has done such a good job of simplification that there is no requirement to embark on any of the kind of technical descriptions Bush had to lay down. However, the concept of linking two items of information can be difficult to visualize.
The words used represent objects, their existence and properties. Linking words establishes relationships similarly to the objects on a web page.
Each web page object is more or less autonomous, and can be assembled into unique combinations within the hierarchy rules. Using the same approach single words and short phrases can be used as ideas for objects. Linking up single words can be sufficient to describe many of the tasks encountered on a daily basis.
"It [memex] 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."
For this to occur a discipline is required, a convention that is sufficient, although clearly inferior, to simulate the process of thinking. A piece of information, a word, is used as a prompt to initiate the display of a list of associated options. Selection of an option links the two words together as more refined information, and immediately becomes a new prompt ready for the next cycle. The prompts and options are arranged as lists in a hierarchical structure ranging from a big idea to the smallest detail. Each list is given the name of its immediate ancestor as its title; each word on every list is a hyperlink. The first item selected (the prompt) activates another simple digital device, a "script", that recognizes the name selected, finds a list with the same title and manipulates, stores and displays new information once the second word (the option) is selected from the list.
"The human mind.... operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain."
The prompt/option cycles emulate the human mind. Whilst the prompts and options are hierarchical, once relationships have been established, progress is unrestrained. The prompts and options grow into a long string of words until the "trail" is complete; the task has been expounded and ready to pass to the next stage of whatever work process it forms part. The hierarchical structures will of course vary depending on the nature of the activity. Whether a word is at the top end of the tree or the bottom is immaterial to the computer. Its job simply is to find matching words.
For example an architect starts from the big idea of a building, and using the lists of prompts and options breaks it down into elements, spaces and components, the final step perhaps being to specify the type of screw considered appropriate to fix the door hinges. For the manufacturer of the screw, the screw may well be the big idea, and at the end of one of his trails will be the raw material, another its intended use.
In this way people with diverse interests and in diverse locations can build from existing experience and data in infinite combinations to bring new information into existence, or more simply, reuse existing information to do their work.
"It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."
The information produced by people is the technology. This overcomes many of the problems the computer industry face in providing tools of universal application. The floating text defining the function of a tool button gives an insight into the future progression of technology. When all the acronyms and icons have been memorized, the back stop is still the common word. As the emphasis has changed from massive main frame computers to PCs, from hardware to software, and from software to the Internet, where next is there to go but back to the common word? The major advantage of using words as a resource is that they are distributed throughout the world. They belong to the people. This does not denigrate the computer industry, rather puts it in a more appropriate perspective, an essential utility like electricity or water supply.
Each government department prepares lists of the words commonly associated with objectives in everyday work - lists of things to do, lists of things to consider and so on - and stores them. This word store is common to all, so that once started each department uses existing words or adds new if none exists. The word store evolves and continues to do so. As each department has different priorities and task relationships, the word stores acquire an intricate network of links; computers easily handle these.
If road safety was broken down into its constituent parts; people, traffic, controls, roads, weather, and so on, and these were similarly broken down into further levels of detail, the common words used become similar to the objects computer engineers use to harbor their coding. Information created by one department is linked through the network to work of another that is relevant, the words providing the links.
"Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails."
Words represent people's know-how. Lists of words that continuously evolve from practice provide the links that enable simple digital devices to automatically search, analyze and summarize information pertinent to the task at hand. The words actually carry out work.
"This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed."
Experienced persons arrange words in associative indexes to optimize the selection process. The central resource is words; digital networks provide the connectivity and small universal pieces of computer code automate the words.
Modern ticketing systems rely on automated information. Without numbers on the ticket the turnstiles would not operate. More complex information is processed by bar code systems. Even more complex information can be managed by registries for various sectors of business. Words, like atoms, can be compiled in an infinite number of ways.
"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."
Registries provide good connections in collaborative work because of the high quality of the information; words representing experience and technical know-how are arranged as lists in a manner useful to the industry sector a registry represents. The words ensure information is always pertinent to the task at hand.
The old adage, "it is not what you know, but who you know" is played out in a modern environment, in which inherent quality assurance and accountability take the place of the old school tie.
Computer technology has shaken many traditions but a world full of lists may sound as inviting to most of us as reading computer code on a warm summer night. But just as computer code leads on to being able to carry out surprising tasks, the design and construction of prompts and option lists has equal surprises in store. These surprises arise from and affect the whole of society simply because of the nature of the resource.
People are trained to use words from an early age. Some people specialize in refining their use of words to make a living, writers, politicians and so on, but in the future this can be extended to many more to build and develop the word stores. A farmer in the North of China might contribute some unknown prompts and options concerning growing grains in that part of the country. Knowledge becomes a readily tradable commodity.
"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."
Most of world knowledge has been lost; the rest is kept in books or other forms of storage. The importance of the existence of this information is what can be gleaned from it, not necessarily the detail of its content. Regulations are a good example. The detail of regulations, how they came about, what was the intent, is interesting to a few, but society demands that everyone comply. The issue of compliance is the interest of the majority.
The same is true with accountability; knowing that the result is the cheapest or most efficient is sufficient, but to provide the necessary assurance elaborate procedures are instituted to demonstrate the insufficiency of the alternatives, which incidentally for physical reasons are severely limited. The more successful supermarkets demonstrate the benefits of distributed and automated information. The amount of information available in a single store is staggering. Calculate the amount of information gleaned from the bar code and ingredients labels on a single can of soup. Estimate how many people look at or seek access to this information. Not many, most have faith in the system. Extend the supermarket model on a wider scale, using the word stores, newly classified reference material, computers and telecommunication, and elaborate procedures will gradually fall out of use.
Similarly, reports and meetings that are essential to modern governments and business gradually become disseminated as inherent information management within the scheme changes the emphasis to human creativity at all levels.
"Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion."
©2001 Chris Glasier. All rights reserved