Vannevar Bush and the Analog Internet

At the beginning of the semester, I suggested that Bush hadn’t gone far enough in predicting the digital world we now live in, and his memex cannot truly be the ancestor of our modern internet without the notion of digital.  On rereading, I think this is mostly true: he has envisioned a somewhat extreme method of reading the books, without exactly redefining the core notion of what books are. 

                In the digital world that we are now trying so hard to figure out, all of our common sense notions– everything from the basic transactions to the items themselves– have been deconstructed by the process of digitization.  In this class, we have dealt with many of the implications of this exact problem, which Bush was unable to visualize.

                However, Bush’s article still provides a useful vehicle for discussing many of these issues, as his blind spots and assumptions underscore the challenges that digital libraries face going forward.  First, Bush was primarily focused on the product of “the record,” not on its creation, though obviously his researcher would have gone on to create.  As such, he worries about the vast project of gathering and consuming information.  His solution is a machine that harnessed the wondrous technology of the time to make reading vast stores of information easier.  He anticipated all kinds of difficulties as well as amazing advances, but stayed focused on the end results – the memex and its record. 

                As we have seen in this course, Bush is correct in considering the record to be too vast for consumption, let along deeper analysis.  However, he errs in his easy summation of the digitization effort. ” So much for the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record. Thus far we seem to be worse off than before—for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it.”  Like Bush, we have seen an explosion in the enormity of the record, but, unlike him, we are also aware of the fact that the undigitized and unmemexed record is far far vaster still.  In fact, digitization efforts must regularly prioritize collections and even items within collections, since there is simply no time or money to digitize, store, and host all the print collections that are potential candidates for processing.   Bush, interested in the promise of the vast store of human record, compressed with technology to ever decreasing sizes, never considers how it will migrate in the first place; moreover, despite waxing poetic about our unfortunate need to convert electrical to mechanical impulses, never suggests any processes for items being “born micro.”  In fact, he seems to be locked into thinking of the micro as something produced in addition to print:   “Compression is important, however, when it comes to costs. The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent. What would it cost to print a million copies? To print a sheet of newspaper, in a large edition, costs a small fraction of a cent. The entire material of the Britannica in reduced microfilm form would go on a sheet eight and one-half by eleven inches. Once it is available, with the photographic reproduction methods of the future, duplicates in large quantities could probably be turned out for a cent apiece beyond the cost of materials. The preparation of the original copy?”  The preparation of the original copy is costly.  Bush envisioned a world where microfilm editions would be available without disrupting the print world too much, so that memex users  would purchase cheap microfilm editions of works that must, somewhere, be purchased at full price in order to subsidize the micro.  In reality, the digital world has disrupted the world of traditional publishing.  There is still quite a bit of tension between what people will pay for ebooks and what an ebook actually still costs.  Libraries looking to purchase digital reference works, even those born digital,  don’t often find them cheap. 

                Perhaps, though, Bush is not thinking about commercial works, despite using the Encyclopedia Britannica as his example.  Perhaps Bush is specifically discussing scientific research and scholarly publication.  Working right after the war, money was flowing from government grants and researchers had reason to be optimistic and helpful.  Though he doesn’t come right out and say it, one suspects that Bush would not be surprised if all scholarly publishers and authors discarded their old models voluntarily in the spirit of cooperation that reigns during the Age of the Memex.  Again, we know that there are some significant obstacles to overcome in this regard.  Many of the greatest challenges to libraries and content providers in the digital age revolve around intellectual property rights.  Since Bush is primarily envisioning his memex as an extension of the print world, this barely bothers him:  “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.”  Bush specifically considers this a private library, which makes it fundamentally different than the web.  He doesn’t have to envision a new world of copyright because his memex works the same way as print materials.  Digital materials both exist on a server and become “copied” to a computer during use.  Moreover, many digital content providers are using licensing models rather than ownership models to deal with digital objects — not to mention that digital items on the web often proliferate despite the best intentions of the copyright owner, and the culture of the web and confusion over the laws, all of which create insurmountable complexity to our current copyright laws.

                He does begin thinking of a way of converting data into machine readable forms, which helps automate his world.  Describing the inefficiency of a department store, he says “all this complication is needed because of the clumsy way in which we have learned to write figures. If we recorded them positionally, simply by the configuration of a set of dots on a card, the automatic reading mechanism would become comparatively simple. In fact if the dots are holes, we have the punched-card machine long ago produced by Hollorith for the purposes of the census, and now used throughout business. Some types of complex businesses could hardly operate without these machines.”

                Bush has, in his memex, created a technological monoculture that is inconceivable and undesirable by today’s standards.    Bush suggests that in the department store of the future, “the salesman places on a stand the customer’s identification card, his own card, and the card taken from the article sold—all punched cards. When he pulls a lever, contacts are made through the holes, machinery at a central point makes the necessary computations and entries, and the proper receipt is printed for the salesman to pass to the customer.”   Convenient, right?  But as we have seen in this course, the digital world does not necessarily produces one standardized format that functions across all possible uses.  Different department stores may find it convenient to issue incompatible punch cards, to use Bush’s example.  While microfilm manufacturers might agree on film size, different publishers might condense their offerings to different levels, taking advantage of some attribute or another.  In the digital world, many formats exist for every conceivable file type.  Some are open source and some are proprietary.  Standards exist for every type of digital object.  The memex, by contrast, displays only text and images.

                Bush’s memex remains locked in the analog world.  Many of its key features represent nothing more than extreme versions of traditional methods of scholarship.  In this course, we have looked at many of the opportunities and challenges of offering public access to digital resources.   Many of the challenges have to do with the deconstruction of those traditional methods of scholarship that Bush is unable to foresee.  Using his memex as a template for the internet, and comparing the prediction to the reality, we are able to see just what those challenges are. 

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