Thursday, January 28, 2010

The iPad: Remember the Memex

Apple has introduced the iPad. I thought it would be interesting to review a small part of an article, "As We May Think", written by Vannevar Bush in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945.

Bush states:

"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.

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. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

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. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sort of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed."

He continues:

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. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

Does any of this sound familiar. Bush was somewhat of a typical Yankee tinkerer and visionary. His family was from Provincetown and he obtained a PhD from MIT in 1917. He was FDRs chief science adviser and administrator.

Bush was an innovator who actually got things done. General Groves reported to him during the period of the Manhattan Project. He had to manage the technical teams, each of which had their own way to purify uranium, explode it, deploy it and the like. Unlike marcroeconomists, however, there was always truth behind the science, and the truth was what Bush was good at getting out.

He did slow down the digital computer as conceived by Norbert Wiener but he later allowed it to catch up. He was always concerned with the practical things, like how long a vacuum tube would work.

I remember meeting him in I believe 1965 as a young grad student, he always had his pipe in hand, an artifact of a now bygone age. But he was an ever present advocate for the memex. I guess between Google Desktop, Google, and Kindle/iPad etc we are there now. Good job Professor Bush!