Vannevar Bush and a Floating Island

This week in New Media Literacies Seminar, we read Vannevar Bush’s essay As We May Think.  In it, this eminent scientist and founder of the National Science Foundation (that’s Van-NEE-var, by the way…if you watch any of the footage of the 1995 conferencededicated to Vannevar Bush, you’ll hear that the name is controversially Dutch in origin) describes his hypothetical machine, the “Memex.”
The Memex
This fabulous thing reminds me a little of the IBM computer behemoth featured in the 1954 Katherine Hepburn-Spencer Tracey classic, Desk Set. But the reason why the Memex has received such attention is because Vannever Bush is talking about hypertext…he’s talking about humans carving a uniquely creative path through references and how the Memex can capture that path and allow humans to return to it, long after they normally would have forgotten it.  Somehow I can’t shake the idea that Vannever Bush would have had nightmares when contemplating Dora the Explorer and how she finds her way alone through the multicolored jungle when every animated frame looks exactly like the last.  
But back to Desk Set, if you are interested in Memex and mid-20thcentury thinking you should watch this movie, as the entire last scene demonstrates the difference between what computers could do with information versus reference librarians. While the IBM was able to calculate the hypothetical weight of the world much more quickly than the librarians, it practically imploded when asked about the island of Corfu.  You see, the technician mistakenly typed in curfew, and without context, the computer spit out a ridiculous amount of information about curfews from dozens of sources.  Apparently, a 1954 IBM was no Memex.  
Watching the movie now, it’s even more interesting to see that the screenwriters really didn’t get the concept of hypertext, or the advantages of the human brain over the IBM (if not the Memex).  It would have been a much bigger victory for Kate Hepburn if she had beat out the computer on a “thinking” or “philosophical” question rather than beating the computer on another rote memory question just because another human inputted the wrong information into the computer.  By the way, if you watch this clip, you’ll understand the title of the blog.  Thank God for my five-year-long ‘tween obsession with all things associated with Katharine Hepburn.  It’s come in handy over the years.
But back to the seminar. I have no desire to summarize our seminar conversation.  It was a good one, but I think we hashed enough.  But upon rereading the essay, there are two passages that stick out for me.  Here they are:   

“Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine” (p.42 in the New Media Reader).


“The process of tying two items together is the important thing” (p. 45 in the same).

So obviously the important thing in everything that I’m talking about is tying things together, but somehow it comes out sounding so linear, even if its circular in its linearity.  The “accepted groove” is a circle…a groove on a record on a record player.  The groove is learning from experience.  Is the groove linear in a temporal fashion too?  On the record, the lines are in a spiral, right?
Ralf Heb – Flickr
I was thinking about multivariate analysis the other day because I have to—I’m in that class for almost three hours every Wednesday morning and we were talking about transforming data…specifically rotating the data.  You make it linear by transforming it (a great use of the word—I had this flash about how logarithms and various fun calculus things are sooo the same thing as Mezirow’s transformative learning—they really are.  You go through this painful process to convert a number or set of numbers into something that is more flexible and resilient in the world.  But I digress.  Anyway, when you rotate the data sets, you are essentially walking around both sets, looking for the point at which they don’t overlap and there you stop.  There you do your analysis.  This is a case in which two things are tied together and yet they are not in a groove.  Ironic that this is the place in which the statistical analysis is best done.  I want to see Memex deal with that J

Johan Koolwaaij


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