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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Information Overload

May 12th, 2003 · No Comments

The problem of information overload has existed for long. Even as Vannevar Bush refers to it in his essay on the Memex, all modern technology of today still does not have adequate solutions to the problem. In fact, if anything the situation in the past decade has got worse.

Compare life a decade ago to now. We have probably seen at least a 10x increase in much of what we are doing (or should be doing). Email, instant messaging and cellphones (with SMS) have made us more reachable, increasing the circle of people who can reach us anytime, anywhere. Email, especially at the workspace, has made it easier for us to be in the loop on many more things increasing the ongoing threads that we are aware of or are involved in dramatically.

Decision-making time as reduced since everything needs to be in real-time after all, if one get access to information in real-time, how can decisions take longer! Thanks to the Web, the information available to us is greater than before. Today, no website is inaccessible, no book is more a few clicks away, no person is unreachable.

What has not changed is time the number of hours in a day is a universal, perpetual constant. What has also not changed much is our own cognitive ability we still need time to process information. What has increased is the number of context switches we need to make in a day so many different tasks seek to grab our attention; what has not decreased is the time that each such switch takes. Technology may follow Moores Law; Humans dont. We are in a world which is not just accelerating, but even the rate of acceleration seems increasing.

The basic productivity tools we have in front of us are two one is our human brain, and the other is the personal computer. For much of our lives, it was the first tool that we relied on. The second tool the PC may have grown by leaps and bounds in what we can do, but we still use a small fraction of its power. There have been other developments around us storage costs have fallen, bandwidth has become cheaper and more ubiquitous. Search engines have complemented our memory by being able to find anything if it is out there.

Complexity in the world that we see around us will not decrease. What needs to change is how we fit ourselves in this and get a greater control on activities that we do. The challenge before us, is therefore, to see how we can use recent technology developments to augment our memory, so that we are able to amplify our ability to process information manifold. The building blocks are at hand to bring to life the vision of the Memex that Vannevar Bush outlined more than half-a-century ago.

Tomorrow: Memex Objectives


TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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