Intellectual Warehouse

In a recent article, The Memex Method, Cory Doctorow unpacked the notion of making a public database of your commonplace book. The idea is based on Vannevar Bush’s 1945 ‘As We May Think,’ in which Dr. Bush posited the idea of a memory expander:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, “memex” will do. 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 is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

As a thought experiment, the Memex was ground breaking, prefiguring modern computing technology such as tag-based indexing and full text search. It was motivated by the daily challenges Dr. Bush, and other researchers, faced in needing to search the ‘findings and conclusions of thousands of other works.’

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month’s efforts could be produced on call.

And Dr. Bush knew a thing or three about the proliferation of scientific research and the double edged necessity / curse of increasing specialization. His day job was as head of the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which had responsibility for military R&D during World War II. Yes, the branch of government that initiated the Manhattan Project, ushering in the nuclear age.

To some extent, the modern blogs which took Dr. Bush’s Memex for inspiration – Dori Smith’s “backup brain”, John Naughton’s “Memex 1.1”, or Cory Doctorow’s “outboard brain” of 2002 – remain truer to the original intent than some may think. For what most vexed Dr. Bush was how ‘truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential,’ and the modern blog and accompanying web based search allows the easy surfacing of ideas with an ease that would likely have enthralled the great man.

Keep or Nuke?

Because it is hard to know from which nascent jotting a future great idea may evolve, there is much to commend itself to the principle of write and write often. Even if no one reads your work, it forms an invaluable archive from which your future self can draw. It isn’t necessary to publish the work, the original Memex after all wasn’t a publishing platform, rather a personal retrieval system. So to record for personal posterity arguably remains truer to the original conceptualisation. But either way, publish and be damned or write in your private archive, the recording of your thoughts is indispensable for future growth.

It is perhaps fitting that the father of the Memex was also involved with the dawn of the nuclear age. Because in juxtaposition to the Memex model, is what can, nay has, been described as the nuclear option. It was a recent post by Doug Belshaw that drew my attention to Kin Lane and his partner, Audrey Watters, who mass deleted Tweets and nuked blogs.

As a man who adores his privacy, I can sympathize with the desire to take one’s personal life offline. Given I blog and even run my own social media service I can understand why this may strike a hypocritical chord in the mind’s ear, but it shouldn’t. In my own case, I generally don’t share my ‘private’ life. True, in some sense anything a person exhibits is to a greater or lesser extent an aspect of their private life. As Daniel Conway correctly noted:

healthy self-creation is never strictly private… [because it involves] a Dionysian element of excess or superfluity which cannot be contained to a private sphere.

Philosophical quibbles aside, and returning to nuking the past, as a historian I naturally lean toward preservation rather than immolation. Of course, everyone must do according to their lights viz a viz the reminiscences they post online. I would go as far to say, in this increasingly puritanical age in which every utterance is scanned and rescanned for signs of transgression, I fear we are entering a time when people are perhaps well advised to eradicate anything which may be used as ammunition for a future attack.

This tempts me to reboot rather than save, but I remain true to the advice I gave a colleague: at times we need to suffer slings and arrows so that we may take arms against a sea of ignorance.

Access to the Garden

If we do not persist in expanding the sum of human knowledge, by means of public access, we not only militate against the original premise of a Memex, but risk the steady erosion of the collegiate atmosphere of interaction which has facilitated the digital revolution. My own jottings, articles and essays would be all the poorer were it not for my ability to access a trove of information and knowledge.

This distinction, between information and knowledge, was one that Dr. Bush perceived keenly:

We seem to be worse off than before — for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.

Mentioning retrieval is to raise the age old problem of access to the primary material. In days of yore, it was about who could go to the bookshelf. In modern parlance, who can access the database. While access to information is now relatively more widespread than in the past, the modern paywall can often prove to be as much of a hurdle to access as the price of manuscripts was in yesteryear.

This problem of access much exercised Paul Otlet who, along with fellow lawyer Henri La Fontaine, created the ‘Mundaneum,’ or universal classification system. It prefigured the Memex by several decades, but was different in one crucial respect: it focused on universal access rather than personal retrieval. As a 1914 pamphlet attested:

The International Centre organises collections of world-wide importance. These collections are the International Museum, the International Library, the International Bibliographic Catalogue and the Universal Documentary Archives. These collections are conceived as parts of one universal body of documentation, as an encyclopedic survey of human knowledge, as an enormous intellectual warehouse of books, documents, catalogues and scientific objects. Established according to standardised methods, they are formed by assembling cooperative everything that the participating associations may gather or classify. Closely consolidated and coordinated in all of their parts and enriched by duplicates of all private works wherever undertaken, these collections will tend progressively to constitute a permanent and complete representation of the entire world.

La Fontaine won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1913 ‘for his unparalleled contribution to the organization of peaceful internationalism,’ and it was the two men’s interest in peace and international organisations which impelled them to develop the Mundaneum. For they believed it could help to establish ‘an intellectual parliament’ for humanity, and support their work at the International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation (the forerunner of UNESCO).

While such achievements may feel a million miles away from the humble offerings of this and the myriad other blogs chewing exabytes of data around the world, our efforts are, in their own small way, part of this heritage. A heritage we can only be a part of by… well, taking part.

This continues to add to the ever growing international community. The tags we use and ideas we convey bind us. We find like minded souls. We assimilate each others perspectives into our thinking and this shapes our future output.

Winston Churchill once observed:

we shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us

In a sense, the bloggerverse works in the same way. We shape our blogs and afterwards our blogs shape us.

Goodnight and good luck.


Vannevar Bush seated at a desk by OEM Defense is licensed under Public Domain.