Lessons from ten years of searching for associative trails
I first read about Vannevar Bush's Memex almost ten years ago. I was shocked. With all the advances in personal computing, how could an idea from over 50 years ago still be so relevant and seem so unsolved? Flash forward to today, and realistically, it's at least partially solved or perhaps made less relevant today by the vast number of products we've created. Just in the last decade or so, we've seen the rise of tools like Dropbox, Elastic, Notion, and Airtable. All of which augment our ability to store, search, distribute, and genuinely understand information.
"Consider a future 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."
We've developed an abundance of ways to accumulate, organise, share, and search through millions and millions of pieces of information in seconds. If you need an answer to a question, you can quickly ask one of your connected devices, and within seconds have your question answered. I've wondered on occasion, how the world we live in today would've changed Vannevar Bush's ideas on personal knowledge devices?
Although we have more information than ever at our fingertips, it's not personal to us, it's not our own thoughts we're combing through. Everyone has their own ideas, beliefs, opinions, processes, and more importantly, ways in which they connect them all together. Vannevar Bush's Memex described a tool that allowed somebody to pack all their books, records and discussions into one device that can be quickly and flexibly consumed. Sound familiar? It's safe to say that we've built our fair share of both hardware and software to help with this, but that wasn't the part of Memex that really captivated me all these years ago.
The part that really captured my attention described the ability to create connections between individual pieces of information within a more extensive system. Bush described these connections as associative trails, with each trail attaching the necessary context to promote the understanding of an individual's thought process, mimicking the human brain's own ability to create mental associations.
I've always struggled with how to describe my process to others and at times, myself. How did I get from point A to point B via point X? I don't want to pretend that my own flawed communication skills don't play a part, but I feel like there is more to it. I frequently find it challenging to explain my disordered non-linear process more coherently and linearly. It feels like trying to jam a square peg into a round hole. That's why the idea Memex was so appealing to me.
Just imagine it, a piece of software that allows you to follow an individual's thought process. Not only seeing they went from A to B, but all the little detours. Thinking about having this superpower at my disposal, I was hooked. If I had this tool, I could not only understand my own thought process instantly but explain it to others.
I've set out on an adventure to build my own personal Memex countless times. Unfortunately, I'm still Memex-less, waiting for someone to release my mythical dream product. It's okay though, I'm patient, I can wait. Until then, I've developed ways to keep my mess of connected thoughts in check.