In 1939, technological innovator, Vannevar Bush (1890 – 1974) wrote a memo noting his ideas for a machine that would revolutionise the interaction of readers with their libraries.
This electromechanical machine, the ‘Memex’ (a compound of memory and extension), would store the contents of thousands of volumes within a few cubic metres of desk-space. Texts would be condensed into micro-photographic film records, which, at the press of a button or manoeuvre of a lever, could be viewed on screens, to “furnish a compressed time scale for a shrunken world”. Upon the typing of an index code, page images would be brought into view - a time-saving retrieval of information, and way of creating associations between texts.
This process of association-making Bush described as the making of memory trails. These ‘trails’, Bush envisaged, would be analogous to the connections of neural pathways in the user’s mind, inscribing personal memory links between written material to support and improve “man’s processes of thought”, methods of classification, and the scientific record. Unlike links in human memory, the trails inscribed by the Memex would not fade over time, but act as mechanical traces to create novel associations for readers and enable the recall of information stored in physical media swiftly.
Bush’s imaginative engineering, contemporary to H. G. Wells’ utopic ideas for a ‘Permanent World Encylopedia’, was never brought into material existence. The Memex is not therefore a dead object. The ideas behind the machine, though, live on, having inspired early forms of the digital networks we rely on today. Hypertext inventor, Ted Nelson, and modern web architect Tim Berners-Lee, acknowledge the influence of Bush’s manifestos on their construction of internet models. A conceptual autopsy of the internet would reveal layers of code distantly derived from Bush’s foresight.
As readers now flick through multiple web pages, fielded from one hypertext link to the next, a course of trails is produced through the material they read. Today this process of trail creation is integrated into the make-up of the Web. It does not exist to improve our memory capacity, or enable us retrieve information instantaneously (Google does the latter for us). But when we harvest the links posted on blogs, or browse the del.icio.us links of others, we are able to share information collectively, and place our own digital bookmarks.
As digital realms continue to evolve – to augment, complement and confuse contemporary society - so too do our systems of classification, information access and reading practice.
“Undoubtedly man will learn to make his aircraft fly faster... but what can he do to mechanically improve a book?”, Bush writes, in 1939. For this question, we are still in search of an answer.
Autopsies reading group participant
All quotes from Vannevar Bush, ‘Mechanization and the Record’, in Nyce J. M. and Kahn, P. (eds), From Memex to Hypertext, Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine (Academic Press, 1991).
Nielson J., Multimedia and Hypertext: The Internet & Beyond (Morgan Kaufman Publishers, 1995).
Link to Bush’s outline essay of his ideas in 1945, ‘As We May Think’ in Atlantic Monthly, which was also published in a condensed version in Life magazine.