Desperately Seeking a Memex !

In spite of years of advances in the field of personal computing, no one has bothered to come up with a better way to search-and-retrieve the data we store on our machines. To my surprise, I discovered that the exact same problem was stated way back in 1945 ! Is there a solution?

Every day, a significant amount of my time is spent working on a computer. And, of all the things we use PCs for, storing and retrieving data still forms a critical component of our work, no matter what the nature of work actually is. What amazes me is that, in spite of years of advances in the field of personal computing, no one has bothered to come up with a better way to search-and-retrieve the data we store on our machines !

When you think about it, human beings don’t think in terms of categories and sub-categories. Instead, each thought triggers another one associated with it. That’s the foundation of how we remember every thing we do and are able to recall it at will. But a typical File Management software (like Windows Explorer) confines us to an un-natural way of processing data, requiring us to store every thing with specific filenames in specific locations. The result : When you want something, you can’t always remember where you put it.

To my surprise, I discovered that the exact same problem was stated way back in 1945 ! Vannevar Bush, in an article published in the Atlantic Monthly, spoke of how the growing volume of scientific work is going to need a better of way of storing and retrieving information.

According to Bush :

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

Of course, at that time, the PC wasn’t invented and Bush envisaged a mechanical machine – something he called a “Memex” – complete with levers and motors, that would hopefully solve the problem. Unfortunately, in spite of processor power (and storage needs) increasing in leaps and bounds, very little progress has been made in this area even today.

I can no longer comprehend a life without Search Engines like Google, and I am pretty sure the “Internet” would not have happened if it weren’t for these indexing utilities to help us sift through the tons and tons of data poured out on the web every day. The information overload we experience on an individual level is not very different in nature…

May be the answer is a personal search engine for our personal computers… a Google-like alternative that would search the entire “database” of files and folders so that we wouldn’t *have* to remember where we put things in the first place ! But such a system would not be able to re-create paths that we followed to record (or search for) specific topics of information.

What is needed is a more flexible way of doing this : A system that allows us to store multiple links to all the data that is stored in one giant location. This data can be either created by us, or sourced from elsewhere as we scoop it along our search on the Internet. We could then look up the same file in many different ways by searching on key words that were included at the time of storage.

Such a system would also allow us to “bind” disparate scraps of information whether they exist as Word documents, Excel sheets, Powerpoint presentations, simple Text files or URLs to websites on the Internet. It will also allow us to look up that “trace” at a future point in time, and recall every thing we did to get there, making it truly meaningful and human-friendly. Wouldn’t it be great if this were possible?

In the meanwhile, I’m going crazy trying to look for that proposal we’d sent to the client last year… Was it in the Pursuits directory or the Proposals one? May be it was in the Clients directory…

I hope some body invents the Memex soon !

Have you been Googled?

The Boston Globe Online wrote a story in Feb 2003 of how the world’s most preferred search engine – Google – is changing what we can find out about one another…The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone…But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past – or oddly refracted shards of it – present and permanent.

The Boston Globe Online wrote a story in Feb 2003 of how the world’s most preferred search engine – Google – is changing what we can find out about one another.

Excerpt from the cover story :

Michael is a clean-cut 34-year-old working in a professional job at a Boston medical school. You’d never know he did time for burglary and is a former drug addict. Well, actually, you would if you Googled him… The search, Google proudly notes, takes just a 10th of a second…

Michael has never hidden from his past, and in his 20s, he even wrote for a few specialized publications about his brief stint behind bars as a 17-year-old. He was happy to share his exploits with that sliver of the population genuinely interested in the issues of incarceration. But Michael never saw Google coming…

The first tool truly to make sense of the white noise that is the Internet, Google has become essential research for everyone…But somewhere along the path toward changing our daily lives, Google changed our concept of time as well. It has helped make our past – or oddly refracted shards of it – present and permanent. That’s a radical notion for a medium usually defined by its ability to constantly update itself.

In fact, a search on Google for “google big brother” will also throw up a few links to pages dedicated towards unearthing the other unethical issues affecting the search engine.

While no one can deny the role Google has played in making our now-connected lives easier, thanks to an amazingly accurate and efficient search facility, I think the article does raise some very valid concerns about the role of Technology and the limits it should follow.

After all, we all have something in our pasts that we wish we could have done differently, don’t we? 😉

Emergic Freedom

Emergic.com … The basic premise is that of using low-end (but perfectly useable) computers, bundled with open-source (and hence, resource-friendly) software based on Linux, to enable cheap access to millions of people all over the world. That means, the dream of an internet-enabled PC in every hospital room, in every hotel room, in every school and college.. can soon become a reality !

The “Emergic Blog“is what inspired me to start a blog of my own. The most interesting thing about it was that the people behind it, headed by Rajesh Jain, were actually trying to use available technology in radical ways to essentially improve the quality of life!

Now, I have been a strong proponent of Linux for a long time. Always believed that there was bound to be an alternative to paying big bucks for continual upgrades of hardware (as in Intel) that is meant to run the continually-upgraded versions of software (as in Microsoft) that basically doesn’t work very well (as in crashes, errors, security bugs, virus problems, etc. etc. etc.).

I have also been a big believer in Internet technologies, and have a lot of faith in its power to bring information…communication abilities…empowerment…to the common man. But the fact is that most modern technology is out of bounds for 90% of the world population, simply because it is too expensive.

Well, it looks like there is finally a way out … The basic premise is that of using low-end (but perfectly useable) computers, bundled with open-source (and hence, resource-friendly) software based on Linux, to enable cheap access to millions of people all over the world. That means, the dream of an internet-enabled PC in every hospital room, in every hotel room, in every school and college.. can soon become a reality !

I know the path ahead for Emergic is far more difficult than it seems. And I wish them all the best in their endeavour. If they succeed, we all will.

See The Emergic Website for more details… And, join the revolution !!!