The Memex: Organizing Modern Knowledge

The Atlantic Monthly published Vannevar Bush’s essay As We May Think shortly after World War II. Bush contended that although science and technology had been able to improve many facets of life, the shear amount of information available to specialists, even in 1945, was too excessive and unorganized to be used at its full potential. Bush’s essay dealt with the management of knowledge. He wished to apply science and technology to the “management of knowledge in such a way as to produce novel methods for its storage and retrieval” (Lister 27). To counteract this information overload, Bush proposed the concept of the ‘Memex’.

The Memex is described as “a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library” (Bush 13). The Memex proposed a mechanized storage system for an individual’s “books, records, and communications” (Bush 13). Essentially the Memex would act as a supplement to human memory and fittingly Bush sought to organize it in accordance with the workings human mind. In order to do so, he argued that the Memex must operate by a system of associations. The Memex would parallel the “intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain” (Lister 27). Bush’s concept may sound familiar to some. This is with good reason. Essentially, he was proposing the World Wide Web.

The World Wide Web is a hypertext. The term ‘hypertext’ has “come to be described as a network of links to other texts that are ‘outside, above and beyond’ itself” (Lister 26).  A page of the Web contains many hyperlinks to other related sites. Hypertextuality is an example of variability, a concept that Lev Manovich discusses in his book The Language of New Media. Variability is one of his five general principles of new media. Manovich characterizes new media as being capable of existing “in different, potentially infinite, versions” (Manovich 56). Variability is an affordance of modularity. Because they are stored digitally, elements of new media are able to maintain their distinct identities even while being assembled into various sequences via a computer program. A hypertext exemplifies variability because it allows each user a unique experience. Each user chooses a particular path through the Web and therefore their process of obtaining information, and consequently the information itself, is distinct to that user.

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic, 1995.

Lister, Martin. New Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge, 2003.

Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2002.

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