Links: Even Grandma Gets It

When one considers the effect that modern technology has had upon scientific and social progression, it is nearly impossible to imagine our culture in the days of non-existent or even old technology.  As the flow of knowledge becomes greater and greater each day, the expectations of technology grow exponentially as well.  Everyday, a new technology, scientific breakthrough, artistic creation or even something as minor as a new interest posted on my Facebook page all become part of the information highway.  The Internet has allowed this constant knowledge flow to be recorded and stored in the World Wide Web, however, it is fundamentally incorrect to assume that the abilities of new media have completely surpassed and replaced old media.  Important minds in the scientific and technological fields have examined the ways in which some new media (i.e., the Internet) have appropriated and integrated old media models.  This paper will examine the works of Steven Johnson and Dr. Vannevar Bush, and the ways in which both men understand new media and the evolutionary processes that occur from old to new media.

Scientific author, Steven Johnson, posits in his book Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate that the Internet, for example, has incorporated more old technology characteristics than many would assume.  One of the first things that he focuses upon is the idea of links and hypertext.  It is literally written in code that the one page is associated with the other, thus a link was created (through hypertext) to get the user to his destination in a much more efficient manner, much in the same way that Dr. Vannevar Bush describes the mental associative processes of the brain (to be discussed in more detail below).  Steven Johnson believes that the ‘link’ has created a language in and of itself.  Links have transformed the simple written language into a more complex and technologically infused means of communication, and have also enabled an organization of the mass of information that is found on the Internet.  Through hypertext, this technology of association has evolved the early ways of navigating the Web into a more concise, meaningful process.  Johnson writes, “As the word suggests, a link is a way of drawing connections between things, a way of forging semantic relationships.  In the terminology of linguistics, the link plays a conjunctive role” (111).  In other words, hypertext has created new ways to read and write, giving multi-level meaning to data.  If one is reading an article about Dr. Vannevar Bush, for example, he/she can click on the word for his invention, the memex, and be immediately connected to an entire site dedicated to the object.  You no longer have to be fluent in computer technology to navigate through the Web.   An article is no longer limited to a two-dimensional piece of paper, hypertext provides a multifaceted way of displaying ideas.  Although these provide specific examples from Johnson’s argument, they highlight the ways in which new media have integrated the old and how these new systems appropriate old ways of thinking and recontextualize them to fit into the language of modern technology.  Newspapers, books, magazines each represent old media models, however, the new technology of the Internet and the advent of the hypertext have evolved that old technology.

Dr. Vannevar Bush, a twentieth century engineer and scientific figure, also comments on the ways in which new media have integrated old media and technology in his article, “As We May Think.”  He also considers the importance of links—albeit different from the form which Steven Johnson discusses—in the organization of information and in sorting data in meaningful ways.  Bush posits that there is a constant influx of new information being introduced into our world every second, but technology’s ability to recall and retrieve the information in a useful and concise manner is not as efficient as it should or could be.  Bush wrote his article in the early twentieth century, a time when computing devices were in their most basic of stages compared to what they have become today, but also a time when he was able to truly foresee the potential that automated technology held.  Bush writes that during his lifetime, “The machines for higher analysis have usually been equation solvers,” however, their inability to sort and recall information in a logical manner limits their maximum efficacy, which in turn, is detrimental for scientific and mental progress.  Bush believed that the perpetual flow of information exceeded technology’s ability to recall it in a sensible way, an enormous deficiency of the media.  He writes, “So much for the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record.  Thus far we seem to be worse off than before—for we can enormously extent the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it” (8).  Bush believed that the fundamental problem was technology’s customary ways of indexing information.  He saw the major flaw being the lack of a machine’s ability to ‘associate’ from one idea to another in the speedy, flexible way that the human mind is able to.  This form of logic thus posits the computer to actually be detrimental in a sense to man’s already rather adept mental capabilities, however, Bush does argue that where the computer lacks in adequate logical reasoning like the human mind, the mind is unable to recall data with the same exactitude that computers are capable of.[1] Thus, he presents his invention of the memex, an automatic, mechanized device that has the ability to store and retrieve information through selection and association through a practical and constructive approach.  He refers to the ability to retrieve information through association as “associative indexing” (10), a process of correlating two ideas together (much in the same way that Johnson discusses the abilities of hypertext).  Links of association, or ‘trails’ in his language, created a way in which information could be sorted in a logical manner when chronological sorting was no possible (i.e., the information was such that chronological or alphabetical sequencing would not make sense).  Bush saw the use of trails as a way in which to link seemingly abstract, or ‘transient,’ ideas together in a sensible way.   memexAssociative indexing would literally enable the machine to interpret data and connect information in a meaningful way for the user.  In the same ways that Steven Johnson understood the importance of hypertext and links, Dr. Bush believed that the memex would enable the user to more easily retrieve information in a more efficient manner and it would provide a way to maximize man’s scientific discoveries by providing an environment in which to store pertinent information.  It would combine the reliability of a computerized memory with the human mental process of association (although Bush did understand that the speed and flexibility of the human mind could not be mimicked exactly in computer form).  If science were to undertake the memex and create an economic and labor-friendly way to produce it, Bush believed that “science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race” (11).

Ultimately, Steven Johnson and Dr. Vannevar Bush understood new media to be a continuation and evolution of past media models.  Both figures believe the most efficient way to store and retrieve data in a useful way is through a computer’s ability to associate and ‘link’ ideas together, much in the same way a human brain is capable of.  Giving a computer the ability to link through association provides a way for the machine to literally interpret information being inputted into it, thus, providing a very useful service for the user to relate pertinent pieces of information together.  Although the two men existed in different technological contexts, they each understood similar ideas of a computer’s capability and the method of association and the evolutionary processes that occur from old to new media.

[1] Here, it is important to recognize that Bush understood the benefits of the technology (we’ll call this the ‘old media,’ however, he was aware of the potential of what the old technology could evolve into, the ‘new technology’).

One response to “Links: Even Grandma Gets It

  1. Here is a 40 second clip, which briefly outlines the basic set up and function of Dr. Bush’s Memex.

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