Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Assignment 1: Wikipedia in 3D?

As I read Bush's paper "As We May Think", I couldn't help but notice how similar his ideas were to the modern internet. In particular, I think his memex concept was essentially what Wikipedia is to us today: a giant encyclopedia, with articles linked to each other in useful places, marked and edited as it is used. This wouldn't have been such an achievement if he hadn't written it in 1945, when most people had never even seen a computer before. Imagine conceiving a world-changing, future medium a half-century before its creation. We can make our own predictions now about what new media will be used in the future, but given the rise to normalcy of such original methods of communication as the Facebook and Twitter, it seems almost in vain. If anyone had described the Twitter protocol to me 10 years ago (heck, even 2 years ago), I wouldn't have bothered to listen. It's too obscure a concept. It doesn't follow the same logic as the communication I'm used to.

Bush describes the contemporary method of research requiring multi-level searches followed by entirely new multi-level searches. He notes that the mind doesn't work like that. Instead, "with one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the
brain." This instantly returned my thoughts to Wikipedia, the internet's dangerously conveniently linked hurricane of articles. Here a user enters at "Napoleon Bonaparte" and lands 3 clicks later at "Gossip Girl" (try it). Overlooking the new problems for the easily-distracted, there's no doubt that this method of linking is progressive to research. How did Bush realize such a revolutionary system so long before it was possible?

Nelson builds on this concept 20 years later with his paper "A File Structure for The Complex". By this point, computers are a relatively commonplace concept, even though they are not yet a layman's tool. Nelson has an understanding of computers and their inevitable fate of commonplaceness, so for him to recognize Bush's idea as realistic is not as impressive. However, he builds on it in a very scientific way (Bush's paper is more conceptual). Nelson lays the foundation of the very HTML that would change the world--he even uses the same word: hypertext.

I found both of these papers to be a revealing look into the past. But I was also intrigued by the possibility that new concepts have true potential. It seems every week there's a new human interface proposed, but they're all so different from what we're used to that I don't bother to give any of them honest credit. Considering the leap from bound encyclopedias to the internet, I'm interested in what new forms of information sharing we'll have to adapt to in the future. Or perhaps, if Bush gets his way, new technologies will be such that they adapt to us.

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