February 27, 2015 | Rome, Italy | Sunny 17°C

Memex to the present

Now, the machine is part of the man that holds it.
By Christopher P. Winner
Published: 2015-01-05

oon after youthful Matteo Renzi bullied himself into the role of Italian prime minister, a prominent labor union leader warned that his me-first style harbored the seeds of a personality cult. Renzi fired back instantly, and hard. Those who objected to his pushiness were out of touch with a competitive peer-to-peer world in which relentless self-promotion was necessary if not expected. Italian unions and their leadership were hopelessly outdated. He was the only authentic new age centaur.

Had he chosen to elaborate, Renzi might have pointed out that the tyrannical 20th-century notion of personality cults had been replaced by a more homespun, egalitarian version in which the packaging and transmission of self as styled and spun by individual "owners" was the newest cult of choice. Online users now trawled through a mutating hive of data, news, gossip, and manufactured legacies that former Florence Mayor Renzi knew all too well. In hacking his way to Italy's top job, he'd tied his name to youth and vigor, hoping to build a fad-proof political identity while also conveying the image of a hip outsider. The tactics were forged by U.S. President Barack Obama's shrewd use of the web in his 2008 election campaign, an effort that not only worked but also attracted the attention of politicians worldwide. Italy's love-hate fascination with all things American did the rest.

The early Argonauts of the Internet did not foresee a Renzi, let alone a Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-politician who represents yet another and more openly vulgar online brand. Nor could they have imagined the tens of thousands of pundits, politicians, pseudo-experts and bloggers that have laid siege to North American online channels. Instead, theorists such as Vannever Bush, an engineer, and J.C.R. Licklider, a computer scientist, anticipated the Internet as a vast communitarian project run by responsible adults eager to put its practical applications to good use. Both were orderly-minded men with idealistic intentions.

It was Bush who first articulated blueprints for the kinds of Internet machines that flourish today. "Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library," he wrote in 1945. "It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'memex' will do. 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."

American engineer Vannever Bush in 1945: "Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, 'memex' will do."

Bush described his "memex" as a private memory device that would include "special buttons" to allow users to roam through a book either 10-pages or 100-pages at a time. "Associative indexing," he continued, would permit the memex to "immediately and automatically" select other ideas based on the ones the user had chosen. A user could simply tap a key, "and the items are permanently joined," creating "a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him," a tracked trail that has since become the invasive centerpiece of all online commerce.

Bush's essay was published in The Atlantic magazine a month before the first atomic bomb was detonated over Hiroshima. He told readers that everything he had in mind, as improbable it might sound, was possible and required only the "projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry."

Less than 20 years later, computer researcher Licklider went further. The cold war Pentagon was increasingly awash in data and had come to depend on computers. Out of this, Licklider — trained as a psychologist — developed the idea of networking, a tool that would allow computer users to share data and communicate. In 1963, he founded Project MAC (Project on Mathematics and Computation), which assailed the "passiveness of pages and books" and questioned the immense storage space they required. "We need to substitute for the book a device that will make it easy to transmit information without transporting material, and that will not only present information to people but also process it for them, following procedures they specify, apply, monitor, and, if necessary, revise and reapply." Swiftness and preservation were paramount. The nuclear age urged speed and eschewed paper, which was flammable. The world's knowledge could go up in flames or be burned by knowledge-hating tyrants, a subject American futurist author Ray Bradbury covered in his 1953 novel "Farenheit 451," in which outcasts are forced to memorize books to keep their legacy alive.

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