March 23, 2018 | Rome, Italy | °C

Memex to the present

By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2015-01-05

How the Argonauts envisaged the commons and how it exists today is now literally incomparable. Two decades after Licklider's year 0, the ragged memex-dominated world encourages politicians — Renzi included — to brush aside personality cult charges by saying that shameless self-promotion is what all citizens of the web commons know and revel in; that self-branding is "empowering"; that disrespect (if not rage) is an attention-getting trait essential to personal and political affirmation; that web prattling is a duty of celebrity.

Licklider wanted none of "the sex-symbolizing and attention-compelling attributes of rockets."

The vicarious ease of online life and its unparalleled opening to data and entertainment firms up a state of intoxicating distraction that can make already overwhelmed humans prone to respond in emotional terms alone. A lack of instant solutions or resolutions can in turn produce swift frustration, vexation and even rage.

That's in part because the new machines — while as keenly associative as their makers hoped — lack the ability to craft context (a reality "smart" machine merchants obscure by advancing "apps" and "preferences.") Though the "send" and "store" buttons that Bush and Licklider hoped would navigate a "trail of interest through the maze" serve their purpose remarkably well, the ability to navigate the maze does not alone ensure intelligent results, let alone guarantee a critical approach to the details found along the way. Web intercourse in this early phase tends to reflect the profane and the base, the carnal and the carnevalesque, as well as a "vacationer's view" of intelligence, a pre-web phrase historian Jacques Barzun fashioned to warn of the risk of placing frivolous sentiment — the jolt of immediate excitement — ahead of disinterested knowledge.

In fairness, American society that nurtured both Bush and Linklider was partitioned racially and sexually, with marked boundaries between public and private. Diary-style confessions and the sharing of sexual intimacies were off limits to what was then known as the general public. When Licklider boasted of a "network" that could "keep track of users' interests and needs and implement acquisition and retention policy," the tracking he envisaged existed within the bounds of understood and accepted discretion. With an innovator's conformist zeal, he saw connectedness as "a boon to humankind ... beyond measure" that would come with the scientific and commercial joy of "adapting the network's software to all the new generations of computers, coming closer and closer upon the heels of their predecessors..."

Pioneers rarely see the shady side of their dreams. While atom bomb creators almost immediately faced the downside of their invention, Licklider didn't live to see his networking dream come true — nor to witness and reflect on the gradual growth of a distracting and near-narcotic dependency on do-everything web technology.

When Vannever Bush came up with the memex, World War II was winding down. He dreamed of a postwar age in which the challenge would be to create devices that superseded outdated means of storing and transmitting information, a Manhattan Project but focused on artificial intelligence and technology. He craved "powerful instrumentalities" to make "real use of the record," namely the record of human existence. He wanted man "to grow in the wisdom of [human] race experience."

Licklider was more impatient. Steeped in a early supercomputer world that had already taken a significant step toward Bush's "powerful instrumentalities," he eschewed "quasi-philosophical or socioeconomic waters," preferring to theorize on the "needs and desires" of future users, the starting point for backyard acolytes Gates and Jobs, academic world dropouts (their impatience is significant) who also chose to put the satisfying of needs and desires — and profit — ahead of potential ethical or philosophical concerns.

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