“The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”– Vannevar Bush, As We May Think. July, 1945.
The year was 1945, and the proverbial firehose was still but a trickle. Even so, we were beginning to discover a new and unfamiliar problem. Our information had a bad user interface, and it was overloading our brains.
Dr. Vannevar Bush—father of the Manhattan Project and no fool—saw that this was a problem. In As We May Think, he suggested the solution: a machine called the “memex.”
The memex would have been a tool for researchers: a personal library in an analogue computer. The revolutionary idea? As you followed a line of inquiry, you would be able to leave a trail—not of bookmarks, but hyperlinks.
The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. […] This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.
Instead of filing things away, you’d build up a network of links. Knowledge is messy, interconnected, hard to categorise, and the memex embraced this.
In 1990, part of Vannevar Bush’s vision became a reality, with the invention of the World Wide Web. But our work is not yet complete.
Dr. Bush saw a future in which a reader could connect passages. But currently, the web only allows authors to link between pages. And the web’s hyperlinks only go one way, where Bush’s connections were bi-directional.
Why is this a problem? The beauty of the web is that everything on it can get remixed into something new. But because links only go one way, and are author-created, it’s hard to trace where an idea came from, and what it evolved into. If you quote this article in something you’ve written, the people who see your work know that I exist. But the people who read my article don’t know that you exist. Links only go into the past, never to the future.
But the real reason we can’t compare the web to the memex is simple: the web just has a different use-case. Bush’s memex was a tool to help the individual collect, connect, and make sense of information. It existed to help you transmute a primordial soup of data into knowledge. The web has given us the global library, but not the personal one.
Don’t get us wrong, we’re not complaining! Research that would have taken weeks before the web now only takes an afternoon. But having a huge, interconnected web of data doesn’t help you digest it, or turn it into something new. It only makes it easier to browse through it.
“The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.”
Does this sound familiar? 69 years after Bush called for the memex, the information overload problem is worse than ever before.
The web has made it easier to browse the sum of human knowledge, but it hasn’t helped us make sense of this information. It hasn’t helped us put it to use.
Francis Pedraza put it well when he said:
“We’ve all become gluttons of media. We listen so much. We watch so much. We read so much. We consume information, knowledge, and ideas at a pace so rapid that most people hardly pause to chew and digest.”
There is no shortage of content available to us today. But it can be hard to find the best content for what we’re working on right now. And when it comes time to turn this content into something new—to digest our food—our tools fall short. We need tools that both help us eat better, and exercise harder.
As it turns out, we aren’t the first generation to feel this problem. When Gutenberg unleashed the printing press on the world, Renaissance readers freaked out. Their solution was to maintain something called a commonplace book.
Readers would copy quotes and ideas into their notebook. Once there, they would break text into fragments and re-arrange it into new patterns. These books helped readers understand how ideas fit together, which made it easier for them to draw new insights. This process was effective: Charles Darwin used it to develop the theory of evolution.
Which takes us back to the 20th century analogue to the commonplace book—the memex. Both of these tools were brain upgrades. They were, or would have been, ways to preserve connections and capture your ideas as they occured to you. The memex could have been the ultimate workflow tool for writers, researchers, thinkers. It could have been the best way to incubate, organise, develop and share your ideas and work.
Alberto Manguel wrote that the web is “quasiinstantaneous; it occupies no time except the nightmare of a constant present. All surface and no volume, all present and no past.” You can follow a trail at lightning speed, but can you really remember what you read last week?
We need to increase our capacity to deal with this information. We need to digest more of what we’re reading. We need the modern day commonplace book.
We need the memex. And our mission at Twingl is to build it.