Archives for the month of: October, 2014

At the risk of wondering something that was covered in the class discussion (for which I was admittedly and unfortunately absent), I quite like the idea of thinking about computers as “artifacts.” I think of an artifact as a tool that reveals something about the culture in which it was created, so I wonder what Engelbart’s mouse, and our use thereof, reveals about us.  If, as Engelbart seems to suggest, our current use of technology directly affects our capacity to develop new technologies, is all technological innovation then the great-great-great grandchildren of one parent?   What can we know of that parent from the modern computer artifacts that surround us every day? Can we, like a geneticist, trace back the DNA of a computer or a computer language?

I seem to remember a time during my college years when I taped paper mouse ears and drew whiskers on a broken computer mouse, thinking myself very clever. What does that reveal about me, other than a clear need for humor augmentation?

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. 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. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Vannevar Bush, As We May Think, The Atlantic, 1945.

Bush’s foresight, amidst the scientific advances generated by a World War, is founded upon and foundational to the modern idea of openness.  In order to forge the links of association, the human mind must first grasp the initial impulse; there must be that core of data in the memex.  The presence of, and access to, these shared scientific ideas is the difference between guesswork and substantiated prophecy.

The modern movement of open scientific and scholarly communication emphasizes the importance of the free and unfettered exchange of ideas as a central tenant of scholarly inquiry; as singular and prescient as Bush’s collective memory machine was at the time, the internet is not yet truly Bush’s memex realized.  Economic barriers to knowledge, science and scholarship still exist, re-routing the free exchange of ideas to thinkers who can afford to pay.

I find myself wondering whether Bush would approve of locking his collective memory machine behind closed doors.