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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Whats Missing

May 1st, 2003 · No Comments

In our daily quest for information, a few years ago in the early days of the Internet, we used to go to Yahoo, navigating through the multiple levels of its directory to reach the site(s) we wanted. As time passed, we started using search engines – first Altavista and Excite, and now Google, which has become our other memory. It can, in fact, be thought of as a knowledge operating system, according to Elwyn Jenkins of Microdoc News:

In general terms, an operating system is a management system. The operating system that runs your computer manages the demands that each of the different programs you are running at the same time, handles your filing system, hard drives, printers and more. Applying the concept of “operating system” to Google, a Knowledge Operating System (KOS) manages your knowledge activity on the Internet. Google, as a KOS, manages your requests for information, indexes your web pages, responds to applications you may be running on your computer that interface to it via the Google APIs, and integrates knowledge and information from millions of computers into a single large managed database.

Website owners and webmaster who build more static websites do not gain the same degree of operating system-ness of Google, as do bloggers who have a closer relationships with Google. I can write a page today, and have my page indexed and readily available for recall in the Google Database within a day.

This is like a massive disk drive directory — only there is a time lag between when I saved the file and when it is accessible. As Google becomes more adept at sending Googlebot around to collect new pages, this sense of “saving something to disk” will increase, thus making Google not only indispensable for others to find my pages, but also, a great tool for me to locate my own pages.

Already I use Google as a bookmark manager. No longer do I remember URLs – it is much simpler to remember how to obtain a site’s listing by remembering a word to locate that siteI go to all my favorite sites with a single word or two-word combination.

What are the benefits of considering Google an operating system? From a user perspective, it places Google in a position of centrality to my tasks. It is where my knowledge is indexed, it is where I locate new knowledge, and it is the system that underlies my writing in Word, preparation of weblogs, and so on.

Yahoo and Google, in some ways, represent the two extremes. Navigating through directories like Yahoo has its limitations. There is a single global directory (or at best, country-level directories). Also, they do not take us to the document – they will leave us at the site’s home page. Most of the directories are also not scalable because of their centralisation and manual updation process. In fact, this is what created the opportunity for automatons like Google – the web had simply grown too big.

In relying on Google so extensively now, we are also losing out on something important. Of course, it is reasonably accurate in what we are looking for most of the time. Or at least that is what we think because we have no way to tell. But the results are the same irrespective of who does the search. We do not have an easy way of specifying clusters of documents to search, or a time period. In short, what is missing is a “context” for the search.

Google has centralised search, which is good, because we do need a single place to turn to. But the Web and the people who have built it are much more complex and distributed. Documents and websites have associated people and ideas with them. As search has become narrower and we have focused on Google to provide our results, the wider view of the world which a directory used to offer has been somewhat lost.

What the Web and Google have done is exposed us to the amazing richness and depth of information that is out there. This has only us hungrier for creating a memory which extends our own and is our own.

Tomorrow: Imagine


TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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