Back to the Memex

by Ethan Cerami

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I recently got a chance to reread Vannever Bush's 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, As We May Think. If you haven't ever read it, it is well worth the read, and still quite thought provoking. You can also check out a biography of Vannever Bush at Wired magazine -- Wired calls him the "Godfather" of the Internet.

In his article, Bush describes a machine called the "Memex." Here's how he describes it:

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.

Bush then goes on to describe a machine which is remarkably like the World Wide Web, as it exists today. For example, he describes "trails" between documents (think hyperlinks), indexes of trails (think Google), and publication of trails with commentary (think Blogs).

As far as we have come, I think we still fall short of Bush's original vision. In Bush's description, the Memex holds all the pieces of everything you have ever read, and lets you easily add notes, and organize those notes into meaningful research. In my own writing and research, the closest thing I have ever found to this is a small shareware application, called
Zoot. Zoot lets you copy and paste web pages, add random notes, and then organize all this into more meaningful folders. You can then do quick searches on all your ideas, and reorganize your folders yet again. It's a great tool, and I highly recommend it.

We have great tools for surfing and searching the web, but there's still a great need for information organizers to help make sense of all the information we take in. In other words, we still need a Memex. And, if anyone ever does build a Memex, I would definitely be first in line to buy one.

Have we fulfilled Bush's vision for the Memex? What qualities would your ideal Memex machine have?