Friday, April 27, 2007

Your Memex is here. Are you using it?

Microsoft Research has put significant effort into implementing a near-literal version of Vannevar Bush's "memex" in its MyLifeBits project. I think we have the memex already: we just don't realize it.

In 1945, the Atlantic Journal published "As We May Think", in which Vannevar Bush speculated that in the future, a machine--the "memex," or "memory extender"--would assist researchers by storing, indexing, and retrieving every piece of information they could possibly need. A user could also add his own text, images, or recordings, and could record notes and comments on the content. And it all fit within a large desk.

This was strong stuff for the time: understand that the state of the art was the Harvard Mark I: a 50-foot-long, 10,000-pound, four-function calculator that could divide at the blinding speed of four operations per minute. To put it in perspective, Bush's prediction was made when my grandparents were not yet old enough to drive a car.

Since 2002, Microsoft Research has been working on implementing MyLifeBits, their version of the memex. And after five years of effort, they now have a one-user prototype to show for their efforts. So don't expect to be shelling out for the Microsoft Memex anytime soon.

But a few weeks ago, I had a realization. I went back to the original, 60-year-old article, and read over the description of the memex again:

A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility....

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works....

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. ...

Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place....

All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another....It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.... And his trails do not fade.

There are more parallels, but that's a good start.

So on the one hand, we have a research project to create a literal implementation of the memex that might exist sometime in the future, or a distributed, chaotic, mashup of individual technologies that together get about 90% of the way there today.

Any bets on which will get there first?

More importantly, what are you waiting for that isn't there yet?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Slightly less perpetually behind

Adam Rifkin says, "Having a blog means feeling perpetually behind." Well, today I'm slightly less behind. The Pipes have been blocked for a few months (you might notice that this happens every time a project at work goes into the home stretch), but now that pressure is off, and I'll be able to (finally) polish and post some items that have been languishing in the Drafts folder for a while.