Vannevar Bush’s Memex

“A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.” (Bush, 1945)

Vannevar Bush was the founder of the precursor to NASA and the chief scientist of the Unites States during world war 2, as the founder and head of the National Defense Research Committee, an agency which he presented to president Roosevelt on a single price of paper which Roosevelt approved in 15 mins with the signature ‘FDR OK’. His singular drive towards technological progress, as his biographer Gregg Pascal Zachary (who joined us for a Future of Text) points out:

Bush’s influence crossed narrow disciplines, shaping the panorama of American experience. His analog computers foreshadowed the emergence of the digital computer, the most far-reaching tool ever devised. Not since Benjamin Franklin had an inventor played so large a role in government. Bush’s management of atomic weapons research, despite initial caution, was a model for later “big science” projects. His unstinting support for federal funding of science and engineering after World War II altered the face of higher education and guaranteed U.S. supremacy in military and civilian technology. His repeated call for military planning and coordination, at a time when defense spending devoured the lion’s share of the federal budget, provided a beacon for reformers.

Gregg Pascal Zachary, 1997

At the end of the war Bush published an article in the Atlantic Monthly with the evocative title ‘As We May Think’ where, as the editor highlights in the introduction: He urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge.

Bush introduces a theoretical system: 

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.

“…the essential feature of the Memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing” (Vannevar Bush , 1945)

He continues: 

The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined … 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 … It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

To me this is very much about citation handling as well as liquid view layouts. 

Scaffolding for Thought : Dealing With Heuristics

There are several well understood limitations on human thought, which we can develop tools and thinking frameworks to provide some mental scaffolding in order to help us access and thus better shape our thought process. In their groundbreaking partnership on the psychology of judgment and decision, cognitive and mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and psychologist Daniel Kahneman unearthed limitations mental performance which they dubbed ‘heuristics’, as well as biases used in judgment under uncertainty – they are commonly also referred to as rules of thumb – basic mechanisms for making decisions without too much time or effort.

Their double biography, which I have been enjoying as audio book on my way to and from Southampton on many a train journey, is called “The Undoing Project” (Lewis, 2016) and paints quite a vivid picture of how they un-did millennia of assumptions by questioning the received perspectives and doing solid research to check their own interpretations. 

Heuristic

“‘serving to discover or find out,’ 1821, irregular formation from Greek heuriskein ‘to find; find out, discover; devise, invent’ get, gain, procure’” (Harper, etymonline.com)

( The choice of the term ‘heuristic’ seems a little odd, when looking at the earlier meaning but most people would not be familiar with the term and the earlier work by political scientist, economist, sociologist, psychologist, and computer scientist Herbert Alexander Simon on ‘satisficing’, from satisfy and suffice. The term was introduced in 1956 but the concept introduced already in 1947 in his work Administrative Behavior (Herbert A. Simon, 1997) of which there is a current edition available. Satisficing is a term used for when we don’t have the opportunity, for whatever reason, such as lack of information, time or technique/education to fully analyse a situation to make the best possible judgement. )

Specific Tversky and Kahneman heuristics are worth going into further since I hope that liquid views can help overcome these heuristics when authoring a paper, by both making it more clear what comes to mind for the author and by quickly and easily allowing the user to gather the further information necessary.

Availability Heuristic

The Availability Heuristic is a mental shortcut that relies on the most immediate examples that comes to mind when evaluating something, rather than taking advantage of more realistic, non-anecdotal evidence. It is as simple as using what comes to mind most readily to make a decision, not making the effort to gather further, more objective data – our decisions are based on what we are thinking about, not what we maybe should be thinking about.

Representativeness

This one I would simply call prejudice, where our understanding is based on aspects of the situation which conform to strong beliefs what represents what. This can lead to us ignoring the base rate (the probability of situations being this or that) based on our personal beliefs.

A specific representativeness issue is ignorance of sample size. If you know that a hospital has 50/50 boys or girls or so, yet on any given Sunday there may be more boys or girls born and thus the impression on someone who observes the hospital on just one day will not be statistically sound. 

Similarly, things which are random will at some point look like a pattern, to a human observer, if seen on a small enough scale. 

Anchoring is an amazing representativeness used by companies from restaurants to computer vendors: Set a high price for a main product and everything below that will then seem (relatively) cheaper.  

From Post-It® Notes to Virtual Notes/Nodes

David Straker’s book on Rapid Problem Solving with Post-It® Notes (Straker, 1997) provides an analog experience of moving piece of information around in order to solve problems. Note that his use case is problems solving, which is close to writing an academic paper, but not exactly the same. 

Key Principles

His key principles are Chunking, Problem Patterns which I have transcribed below. He also discussed  Guiding Decisions and The FOG Factor, which are not as relevant to liquid views. The Guiding Decisions set of principles is very much focused on problem solving, with categories of Objectives, Criteria, Questions and Constraints. I think this points to using templates for the academic papers but it’s not completely relevant for liquid views. The FOG Factor is a notion of putting an F on Notes which are Factual, O on Notes which are Opinions and G on Notes which are Guesses. The idea seems to be that the act of determined what is what is useful. 

Chunking

• Your mind works by taking in information one individual piece, or chunk, at a time. The chunk may be simple, like “a brick,” or more complex, such as “my house”. 

•  Information about problems also comes in chunks. It can usually be written in a short phrase or sentence. For example, “The roof is leaking”. 

•  You can capture problem chunks by writing them on Notes. 

•  You can solve problem chunks by:

– finding all the chunks

– arranging them into meaningful patterns

– focusing on the important parts

Problem Patterns 

There are three basic ways of arranging chunks: 

•  Lists are simple collections of chunks that may or may not be sorted in order of importance.

•  Trees have simple hierarchical “parent-and-child” relationships. They can be built top-down or bottom-up.

•  Maps have more complex relationships. Any chunk is related to any other chunk. They can be used to relate specific actions or general information chunks.

The Swap Sort / Overlays

This is what he calls a ‘tool’ and it is simply a way of laying out Notes where there is a divider (horizontal or vertical) and labels for what it means for a Note to be above or below the divider, such as ‘Do these’ and ‘Don’t do these’. This could be an inspiration to have overlays or backgrounds in liquid view which are only visible and useful in that view but which also only provides value to highlight the layout in that view. 

Beyond Paper

The Post-It® Notes environment provides rich interaction spatially in 2D when there are no visible lines connecting any Notes (drawing a line freezes the layout); the user can move the Notes around at will, with a work space as large as an A1 pad or even a wall. 

What a computer screen adds is:

 

•  The ability to keep lines connected to Notes even when they move.

•  3D, the notes can be sized and presented in 2 ½ D as well as possibly in 3D.

•  The opportunity to Save layouts and quickly switch between them.

•  The means through which to do automatic layouts, based on keywords, spacing and more. 

•  A way to embed further information which is not always visible.

•  Links to open up further liquid views.

•  Links to open up external information.

•  Opportunity to share the layout and work on it with many people remotely.