TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Google, Blogger and Memex (Part 2)

Steven Johnson, the author of Emergence, then picked up the Google-Blogger story in an article in Slate:

Google has not yet ventured into managing the information and surfing history of individual users. If Google went in this direction with the Blogger acquisition, it would hearken back to one of the seminal documents of the computing age: Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think essay, which envisioned a new tool to augment human memory. Bush’s imaginary device, called the Memex, would help manage the ever-accelerating explosion of information in the world.

Bush imagined the Memex as a machine of connected documents that from one angle looks a great deal like the modern, Web-enabled computer. But in one crucial respect, Bush’s vision differed from today’s Web: He placed great importance on the trails created as the user moved through information space, assuming that a record of those trails would be of great use in amplifying the signal of human memory. In many ways, our networked computers have wildly exceeded Bush’s vision, but our trail-recording tools are still woefully undernourished.

By acquiring Blogger, Google gets access to the user base, thousands of individuals who are already sold on the premise of storing their Web actions for posterity. How might Google’s tools improve the existing Blogger technology?

One feature might work like this: Each time I search for something on Google, a list of URLs is generated. When I click on one of those URLs, the page I’ve selected is automatically blogged for me: storing for posterity the text and location of the document. If I were an exhibitionist sort, I could choose to publish this list to the world, but more likely I’d keep it as a private archive, visible only to me. It would be a kind of outsourced memory, but one capable of making new connections on its own. Google could easily generate a list of all the pages that linked to the pages in my archive, or notify me if a page I discovered two years ago suddenly grew popular. I’d have the option of searching just my personal archive, instead of the entire Webor searching the archive’s extended family: both the pages I’ve surfed through, and the Web sites that link to those pages.

This idea of personalized link collections, augmented by software, is straight from the pages of “As We May Think: “Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear,” Bush predicted, “ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”
Google is the encyclopedia of the connected age, and bloggers are the trailblazers. If Google simply uses Blogger to update its database more rapidly, it won’t change the Web experience as we know it in any profound way. But a genuine trailblazing device would be a way of preservingand wideningthe paths that our lives have carved through information space.

A story that began more than half a century ago, long before the era of information technology as we know it now, with Vannevar Bushs article on the Memex is reaching its climax. The problems related to information overload that Bush outlined are even more in evidence now tan ever before. And yet, for the first time, there are also solutions in sight. The question is: do we wait for Google to construct the Memex? Or, can we lots of us build it in an emergent fashion?

Next Week: Constructing the Memex (continued)

TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.