Journal tags: memex



Associative trails

Matt wrote recently about how different writers keep notes:

I’m also reminded of how writers I love and respect maintain their own reservoirs of knowledge, complete with migratory paths down from the mountains.

I have a section of my site called “notes” but the truth is that every single thing I post on here—whether it’s a link, a blog post, or anything else—is really a “note to self.”

When it comes to retrieving information from this online memex of mine, I use tags. I’ve got search forms on my site, but usually I’ll go to the address bar in my browser instead and think “now, what would past me have tagged that with…” as I type (or, if I want to be more specific, or

It’s very satisfying to use my website as a back-up brain like this. I can get stuff out of my head and squirreled away, but still have it available for quick recall when I want it. It’s especially satisfying when I’m talking to someone else and something they say reminds me of something relevant, and I can go “Oh, let me send you this link…” as I retrieve the tagged item in question.

But I don’t think about other people when I’m adding something to my website. My audience is myself.

I know there’s lots of advice out there about considering your audience when you write, but when it comes to my personal site, I’d find that crippling. It would be one more admonishment from the inner critic whispering “no one’s interested in that”, “you have nothing new to add to this topic”, and “you’re not quailified to write about this.” If I’m writing for myself, then it’s easier to have fewer inhibitions. By treating everything as a scrappy note-to-self, I can avoid agonising about quality control …although I still spend far too long trying to come up with titles for posts.

I’ve noticed—and other bloggers have corroborated this—there’s no correlation whatsover between the amount of time you put into something and how much it’s going to resonate with people. You might spend days putting together a thoroughly-researched article only to have it met with tumbleweeds when you finally publish it. Or you might bash something out late at night after a few beers only to find it on the front page of various aggregators the next morning.

If someone else gets some value from a quick blog post that I dash off here, that’s always a pleasant surprise. It’s a bonus. But it’s not my reason for writing. My website is primarily a tool and a library for myself. It just happens to also be public.

I’m pretty sure that nobody but me uses the tags I add to my links and blog posts, and that’s fine with me. It’s very much a folksonomy.

Likewise, there’s a feature I added to my blog posts recently that is probably only of interest to me. Under each blog post, there’s a heading saying “Previously on this day” followed by links to any blog posts published on the same date in previous years. I find it absolutely fascinating to spelunk down those hyperlink potholes, but I’m sure for anyone else it’s about as interesting as a slideshow of holiday photos.

Matt took this further by adding an “on this day” URL to his site. What a great idea! I’ve now done the same here:

That URL is almost certainly only of interest to me. And that’s fine.

An associative trail

Every now and then, I like to revisit Vannevar Bush’s classic article from the July 1945 edition of the Atlantic Monthly called As We May Think in which he describes a theoretical machine called the memex.

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.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

1945! Apart from its analogue rather than digital nature, it’s a remarkably prescient vision. In particular, there’s the idea of “associative trails”:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Many decades later, Anne Washington ponders what a legal memex might look like:

My legal Memex builds a network of the people and laws available in the public records of politicians and organizations. The infrastructure for this vision relies on open data, free access to law, and instantaneously availability.

As John Sheridan from the UK’s National Archives points out, hypertext is the perfect medium for laws:

Despite the drafter’s best efforts to create a narrative structure that tells a story through the flow of provisions, legislation is intrinsically non-linear content. It positively lends itself to a hypertext based approach. The need for legislation to escape the confines of the printed form predates the all major innovators and innovations in hypertext, from Vannevar Bush’s vision in ” As We May Think“, to Ted Nelson’s coining of the term “hypertext”, through to and Berners-Lee’s breakthrough world wide web. I like to think that Nelson’s concept of transclusion was foreshadowed several decades earlier by the textual amendment (where one Act explicitly alters – inserts, omits or amends – the text of another Act, an approach introduced to UK legislation at the beginning of the 20th century).

That’s from a piece called Deeply Intertwingled Laws. The verb “to intertwingle” was another one of Ted Nelson’s neologisms.

There’s an associative trail from Vannevar Bush to Ted Nelson that takes some other interesting turns…

Picture a new American naval recruit in 1945, getting ready to ship out to the pacific to fight against the Japanese. Just as the ship as leaving the harbour, word comes through that the war is over. And so instead of fighting across the islands of the pacific, this young man finds himself in a hut on the Philippines, reading whatever is to hand. There’s a copy of The Atlantic Monthly, the one with an article called As We May Think. The sailor was Douglas Engelbart, and a few years later when he was deciding how he wanted to spend the rest of his life, that article led him to pursue the goal of augmenting human intellect. He gave the mother of all demos, featuring NLS, a working hypermedia system.

Later, thanks to Bill Atkinson, we’d get another system called Hypercard. It was advertised with the motto Freedom to Associate, in an advertising campaign that directly referenced Vannevar Bush.

And now I’m using the World Wide Web, a hypermedia system that takes in the whole planet, to create an associative trail. In this post, I’m linking (without asking anyone for permission) to six different sources, and in doing so, I’m creating a unique associative trail. And because this post has a URL (that won’t change), you are free to take it and make it part of your own associative trail on your digital memex.