The Memex

Quotations below are from Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”, The Atlantic, June 1945.

Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the federal agency created to coordinate scientific research for military applications during World War II, conceived of the “memex,” an ebook reader to extend the reach and speed of our memory, back in 1945:

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 … Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place.

The memex photocopies the contents of any reading material dropped onto its platen into its memory, from which they may be retrieved later for reading:

Any given book of his library can thus be called up and consulted with far greater facility than if it were taken from a shelf. As he has several projection positions, he can leave one item in position while he calls up another.

But the full potential of the memex is not revealed until we add in the ability to link between books:

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.

Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. …The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button…. 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.

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.

Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race.

This is a vision of the Web in which readers, not Web site coders, are the primary makers of links. With these links, readers can draw semantically rich connections between books speaking to each other across time and space, string together personal intellectual scaffolds that other readers can follow and add to, and make sense of the accelerating accumulation of human knowledge.

How far we are still from that vision, and how pale the Web is compared to the memex.