Building a Memex (Not Really, But Kind Of)

I’d read As We May Think quite a few times before I started working on my MFA at Parsons a year ago. I’d always looked at it and kind of thought “Oh that’s nice. We did that.” However, in my Major Studio 1 course last fall my instructor, David Carroll, questioned that assumption. In some ways, I can replicate the process Bush talks about with the memex. We have hypertext, the web, the internet, personal computers. All of this beats microfilm for the most part. However, the fact that I can replicate Bush’s process of saving things, retrieving them, and passing them along to others doesn’t mean that we’ve done what he envisioned at all really.


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. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.


And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

We can kind of do all of this now but the only way is through a series of hacks. You have to string together a bunch of different apps and services as if you were using duct tape to make this work. What these quotes also speak to, though, is the idea of the associative nature of human thinking. The article may not go into any depth on cognitive psychology association does play a role in creative thinking.

The tying together of resources one might have saved really interested me. So as a bit of a collector of digital ephemera, I became really interested in the memex and how to make it real. I briefly entertained the idea of building a physical memex, microfilm, gears, levers, and all. That was too crazy for me though so I came back to earth and tried to figure out a way to make the saving of resources more associative.

I’m a big fan Pinboard, a bookmarking application. Pretty much everything I look at on the web ends up saved there. What I’m left wanting, though, is a way to explore the content saved there through means other than search and tags. I want a sandbox in which to play with those resources, see how they’re related, and make something new out of those connections. I want something associative. An associative tool I’ve always found really helpful is a concept map, or mind map. Long story short, Bush’s memex gave me the idea for my thesis project.

My thesis concept is a web based bookmarking application enabling visual organization and association of any web media. It contain the features of a traditional bookmarking application (saving, annotating, tagging, and sharing of web URLs) and combines them with associative diagramming techniques like mind mapping and concept mapping. Where your average bookmarking application sorts by date or tag, this application enables users to move beyond archiving and retrieving information toward connecting distinct ideas and media. Additionally, a user can see what other users of the application connected their bookmarks with, offering broader and deeper perspective on an artifact and its context. My hope is for the app to be a tool that doesn’t just store the information we collect in our lives on the web but one that helps us make meaning from it.

I hope to be able to somehow use my thesis work in my final project for this class but I’m not really sure how to do that yet.