As We May Think: Creating Your Own Personal Memex

As We May Think: Creating Your Own Personal Memex

The memex ( “memory extender”) is the name given by Vannevar Bush to the theoretical proto-hypertext computer system he proposed in his 1945 The Atlantic Monthly article As We May Think. The memex has influenced the development of subsequential hypertext and intellect augmenting computer systems. Bush’s vision for the memex extended far beyond a mechanism which might augment the research of one individual working in isolation. In Bush’s vision the ability to connect, annotate and share both published works and personal trails would profoundly change the process by which the “world’s record” is created and used.

Excerpts from Bush’s article:

“Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. … The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected. ”
— As We May Think


“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.”

It seems to me that the Bush’s concept and proposal of a memex, while fanciful and even bordering on futuristic fantasy (having been written in 1945), is obviously becoming a reality for normal, everyday people. Yes, there are definitely parallels with hyperlinking systems, the WWW (yes, it’s 2008 and I said WWW), and the recent surge in social networks. There is nothing particularly revolutionary with this comparison. However, the real power in this type of personal knowledge manager is putting the memex to use for personal applications. By putting to use, I mean augmenting your personal knowledge (learning new information and recalling existing knowledge) and creating a “trusted system” for storing your most important and cherished information.
Much of my time the last few months has been devoted to the topic of Personal Knowledge Managment, and in particular, the application and use of Semantic Wikis. I’ve been experimenting with a few different applications of my own memex, and so far the results have been very promising. So far, I’m working on the following:

  • Personal Journal – Basic forms for filling out a diary/journal entry
  • Dream Journal – Detailed form and record of dreams. Complete with semantic, table-based, and calendar views (Simile)
  • Travel Log – Travel details including geographic information and integration with Google Maps
  • Personal Learning History – Tracking all books and audio/dvd courses completed in the last few years. Complete with semantic, table-based, and calendar views (Simile)

In some upcoming posts I plan on sharing how to implement these applications.
Credit: Thanks to Jamie at Semantic Wave for bring the work of Vannevar Bush to my attention a couple years ago. It wasn’t until recently that I really started making progress in implementing some of these ideas for my personal use.
Link to the online version of the Atlantic Monthly article is here. And, excerpts of this post were taken from the Memex article at Wikipedia.

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