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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Why Now

June 13th, 2003 · No Comments

Why has the Memex has not been constructed so far? After all, Vannevar Bush wrote his paper in 1945. Why are we still reeling under information overload? Why is it still so difficult to find the relevant information?

Consider what Jared Diamond writes in his book, Guns, Germs and Steel: Because technology begets more technology, the importance of an inventions diffusion potentially exceeds the importance of the original invention. Technologys history exemplifies what is termed as an autocatalytic process: that is,one that speeds up at a rate that increases with time, because the process catalyzes itselfOne reason why technology tends to catalyze itself is that advances depend upon previous mastery of simpler problemsThe other main reason for autocatalysis is that new technologies make it possible to generate still other new technologies by recombination.

Heres an example which Jared Diamond gives which explains his views. He addresses the question of why did printing spread explosively in medieval Europe after Gutenberg printed his Bible in AD 1455, but not after that unknown printer printed the Phaistos disk in 1700 BC:

The explanation is partly that medieval European printers were able to combine six technological advances, most of which were unavailable to the maker of the Phaistos disk.Of these advances in paper, movable type, metallurgy, presses, inks, and scripts paper and the idea of movable type reached Europe from China. Gutenbergs development of typecasting from metal dies, to overcome the potentially fatal problem of nonuniform type size, depended on many metallurgical developments: steel for letter punches, brass or bronze alloys (later replaced by steel) for dies, lead for molds, and a tin-zinc-lead alloy for type. Gutenbergs press was derived from screw presses in use for making wine and olive oil, while his ink was an oil-based improvement on existing inks. The alphabetic scripts that medieval Europe inherited from three millennia of alphabet development lent themselves to printing with movable type, because only a few dozen letter forms had to be cast, as opposed to the thousands of signs required for Chinese writing.

[In addition to the technological drawbacks], the Phaistos disk was printed at a time when knowledge of writing was confined to a few palace or temple scribes. Hence, there was little demand for the disk makers beautiful product, and little incentive to invest in making the dozens of hand punches required.

Jared Diamonds point about autocatalysis cuts to the heart of why it has taken so long to arrive at a situation where it is possible to consider the construction of the Memex. It is only now that the various tools and technologies have become available. In the past two years, weblogs, RSS, OPML, web services, Googles API, visualization tools, social software, combined with a deeper understanding of the science of networks have laid the foundation for leveraging individual intellect to put together a information framework that is far beyond the capacity of any person or organisation. The time for constructing the Memex has now come.


TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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