The Computer History Pantheon

[This is a post I made to Livescribe's forum on 2008-06-01. Livescribe is no more; the closest equivalent are some tablet apps.]

I was listening to the start of Jim Marggraff's podcast this evening, and he made mention of Vannevar Bush's Memex idea.

It occurred to me that probably most people don't really know the origins of the ideas behind all this fancy hyperlinked multimedia technology we're coming to take for granted these days. And this site needs a link...

Vannevar Bush was an MIT professor, Vice President and Dean of Engineering from 1932-1938. His idea originated during this period, but was put on hold during the war period, while he (among other things) ran the Manhatten Project and advised Presidents Roosevelt and Truman.

But after the war, he dusted off the idea, and published it as an article in the Atlantic Monthly. This single article, in July of 1945, over 9 years before I was even born -- this ancient article, is the true root of all our modern idea of Internet, and of the World Wide Web.

A number of years ago, Atlantic Monthly put this article up. If I recall correctly, they continued to make it free even while they experimented with paid web access.

The article is entitled As We May Think. I highly recommend anyone who has not read it before, and is interested in the direction and possibilities take a little time out to read this article. It is written from the perspective of microfilm technology, which younger readers won't even have heard of, and yet it anticipates technologies that weren't developed for another 50 years, and which still have not been applied to the extent outlined in this article.

I know of no visionary article, on any topic, at any time, which has had the impact, the long-lived influence, and the amazing degree of fidelity into the future as this article.

It has inspired all of the major players in the evolution of what we do with computers: Douglas Englebart (inventor of the mouse and much more), Ted Nelson, who, in his 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, coined the term "hypertext". This book tried to be a prototype of what it advocated -- extremely non-linear in form, leading you on a journey from point to point throughout the book. I sure wish I still had my copy....

And let's not forget J. C. R. Licklider, whose 1963 memo, Memorandum For Members and Affiliates of the Intergalactic Computer Network led directly (and quickly) to the creation of the Internet. Nine years later, when I came to MIT and Project Mac, the lab he founded and later directed at MIT, the internet (then called ARPAnet) was already up, running, and developing its own culture.

There are two projects which, combined, start to come close to what Vannevar Bush envisioned 70 years ago.

The first is Wikipedia itself. (There is a reason I chose Wikipedia articles for my earlier links!).

The second is Gorden Bell, best known for being VP in charge of Engineering at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). He is now capturing his entire life digitally, in the MyLifeBits Project.

Against this historical backdrop and vision of capturing, integrating and communicating our daily human experience, the pen stands out as a holdout, the last important mode of human communication to integrate.

I myself, have shunned the pen in preference to the computer for these 36 years, precisely because of this lack of integration.

This is why it is so interesting, and exciting, for me personally, to see Livescribe focus on a platform for re-integrating the pen. It's not about capturing handwriting. It's not about capturing audio.

It's all about the integration. Pen with audio with location with events with phone with network with ideas captured with ideas borrowed with ideas shared.

Vannevar Bush's vision was constrained by the technologies he had at hand -- largely mechanical and photograhic. Yet look how far he saw.

When you look at what the Pulse Smartpen can do today, don't look at it as being about capturing writing done in the old way. Try to look ahead at what writing could become for you, once integrated with the rest of your Life Bits. How would you use writing differently?

You, too, can be a pioneer.

In this historical canvas, Lifescribe is just a small yet-unpainted corner. But I'd argue it is important (if it succeeds) precisely because they occupy that last unpainted section, that last unmet need.

That last blank space, where will be writ, by Livescribe and others -- by all of us, the final signature, of the end of the Age of Paper, and the true beginning of the Digital Millennium.


It just occurred to me, I should add one more project to the list that are completing Vannevar Bush's Memex vision:

Brewster Kahle's Internet Archives captures the history of the internet. If you're looking for something that used to be there, then you need only go to the archives, and check the Wayback Machine. If it was there long enough, the Internet Archives will have one or more snapshots of it. It is also other film & video, and audio, text, and other digital artifacts.

February 17, 2011

December 02, 2010

March 23, 2010

March 16, 2010

December 17, 2009

March 09, 2009