Thursday, February 7, 2008

Assumptions made, Assumptions challenged

The Memex is a fictional method of organizing and interpreting research based on human cognition: a machine with the ability to associate, rather than simply index. It was a dream of Vennevar Bush’s at the end of World War II. Now, of course, we have the memex: the Internet, a gargantuan database of information contained in the realm of cyberspace, which spreads out through so many links that its other name is the World Wide Web. The greatest difference, of course, is that the web is ever shifting, and impermanent, but with archival sites such as, there is a skeletal but possibly permanent record. And what has happened? Has the miracle of progress that Bush is pushing occurred?
I think the answer is yes and no. The promise of instant access, instant gratification of knowledge, has been realized. Google proves that. But do we entertain the “luxury of forgetting” as much as Bush has hoped? Do humans no longer have to burden their minds with huge amounts of information, repeating learning processes that many have already gone through, so progress may be achieved faster and more efficiently without going through all the first steps? That I cannot believe.
There’s a wonderful example of what Bush is hoping for that I believe has not been mentioned in class or in section. It is of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was a poor man, raised in India in the late 19th century, away from the intellectual center of the world which, at that time, was Western Europe (mostly Germany). With almost no training in pure mathematics, he somehow managed to contribute an incredible amount of information to the field by simply starting from scratch. Of course, with no training, he had very little idea of what had already been done, and had to come up with most of Western mathematics by himself in order to advance. Mathematicians still wonder what the result would have been if Ramanujan had had all the information he needed at his disposal, if he had not wasted his time with rediscovering most of established mathematics (Ramanujan died very young). Bush and the memex seem to answer this quandary.
However, I believe the reason why Ramanujan was such a genius in the first place was that he had the understanding of mathematics most Western mathematicians did not, because he taught himself. He went through the repetitive processes, and “wasted his time” according to the logic of Bush, but human understanding requires human learning. With increasing specialization, knowledge of the basics is absolutely fundamental. Standing on the shoulders of giants produces progress but little understanding; many who say science is getting away from humanity believe it is so because of this very reason. And of course, with each step away from the basics, the ground becomes shakier—assumptions, which may have been questioned at first, quickly become taken for granted and eventually forgotten. This has the potential to lead to chaos.
I am a progressive, but I like to know what I’m progressing towards before I push forward. I've read my dystopias. I’m glad the memex has not been realized, and people are still questioning and doing repetitive learning. Remember: each time the same scientific law is confirmed, that’s also progress.

--Dan Ricker

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