It would be very easy to say that there is a lot to unpack from these readings. So many ideas espoused in these papers exist today in modern computing, and while things did not progress exactly like these papers predicted (our computer systems are much more compact than a memex), they are still pretty incredible to read. For me it was Bush’s concept of “associated indexing” that the memex would allow that provided the “wow” moment.
When Bush discusses the “associated trail” I automatically thought of Zotero and RefWorks, where we can save our sources as we conduct research. He foresees that lawyers, doctors, attorneys, will all have their own trail, correlated to their specific expertise. Could he have imagined that all of their information would exist communally on the internet? That Douglas Englebart’s patent is not only known to patent attorneys, but to anyone who searches for it on Google.
The constraints of other media are limited to our ability to search with them, a physical book we have to flip through the pages we want, a painting requires a trip to a museum. With a tablet or computer system our only limits are what we can cognize and how much electricity we have. I type in any book section I want and it comes up, ditto any painting, and they aren’t saved on microfilm, but exist digitally. These are cognitive artifacts that exist within a cognitive artifact. Artifacts which we can blend together. This was one of my takeaways from Conery piece, even if he did not intend it this way: that we need to think of computing as more than code, more than programming, but as thinking. As researchers, using the right databases to extract the exact information we need, is actually a form of computing. We create an associative trail as we think, and with every new bit we save, we extend our memory.
One small thing that I keep thinking about as it applies to design thinking, is what if Xerox PARC hadn’t shared it’s work with aspiring entrepreneurs. We know that Apple basically took Englebart’s GUI system and ran with it straight to the bank, and they did so with a closed system. Englebart’s GUI and mouse made computers accessible, but they could have helped popularized an open system. If Apple hadn’t been the first to reach a critical mass, maybe we would all be hobbyists and adept with the more technical aspects of our computers. Englebart, Bush, and Licklider, predicted (and worked on) some of the most amazing developments of the 20th/21st century, but could they have seen the Cubs winning the World Series? I’m not so sure.
Bush, Vannevar. 1945. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic.
Conery, John. 2010. “Computation Is Symbol Manipulation.” The Computer Journal, 55, no. 7
Irvine, Martin. 2016. “Introduction to Affordances and Interfaces: The Semiotic Foundations of Meanings and Actions with Cognitive Artefacts”.
Licklider, J.C.R. 1960. “Man-Computer Symbiosis”. New Media Reader. Wardrip-Fruin, Noah, Nick Montfort, ed.. 74–82. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003.