The Mind’s Associative Trail

Bush created an illustrative image of the potential for a computer/memex tool to aid us in recalling associations and information retrieval when he wrote:

”Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it.  In minor ways he may even, for his records have relative permanency….Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized.  One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.   (p. 6) 

Bush had so many present day realities well visualized years ago.  Microfiche and photographic innovations could solve our storage problems, allowing us to place a vast library’s worth of data into a suitcase.   His “memex” machine would allow us to instantly draw upon stored records, reconfigure them, and create associations beyond mere indexing.  And we’d be able to consider all these records almost instantly while seated at a desktop.  The potential Bush sees in “selecting by association” is a really compelling tool that online federated databases offer over a single library’s print resources.  My LIS education so far has stressed that the innovations in this realm in terms of data retrieval, curation, reference and research have endless potential.

I’m open to a discussion of how we can hope to mediate these constant innovations?   I remain interested in how collaborative knowledge can be fostered and shared?   How the Internet will continue to evolve to aid us as a tool?    How digital tools can pave the mind’s associative trail?

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3 responses to “The Mind’s Associative Trail

  1. In my opinion digital tools and especially the internet have hindered the mind’s associative trail. It may just be me, but I feel like I “remember” less than when I was younger. It may be age (but I am only in my mid 20s), but I think it really may be the ease of access to the internet. We used to have to remember things like who was that actor in that one movie? It may not have come to you right away, but when it did your brain was in use and it made that connection. Having internet on your phone now you don’t give your brain that time to make a connection instead you just whip out your phone and look it up on IMDB and answer it right then. I think the internet is making us “dumber” in the sense that we have the ease of access to gorge our minds on all of this data so there is no need to remember things. We have encyclopedias in our pockets and always at our fingertips.

    • I share some of the same skepticism that the internet may have “dumbed” us down; agree that ease of retrieval makes memory less important as a discipline. What I noted in Bush’s vision of a memex though was its ability to not only recall “that actor in that one movie” but expand that answer to include every single movie that actor has been in; manufacture connections (associations) to allow one to filter by genre, producer, cinematographer, director, year, etc. Agreed we no longer have the necessity to remember many things, but I am personally convinced to the internet’s value as an advantageous tool that allows me to delve deeply, create meaning, and discover further connections. I’m attracted to this ease of use, this potential for discovery. It can make us lazy pocket encyclopaedians for sure, but also serves as positive tool impacting our patrons lives. Perhaps its just both?

      Love your metaphor “gorge our minds” by the way. Thanks for the response.

  2. Love these responses. It’s possible that the internet as medium may serve multiple and paradoxical roles – dumbing us down while making us more knowledgeable; sharpening some skills while allowing us to let others slide. It might not be an either-or game, but a site of many complexities and nuances. TBA…

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