Posted by: filehunter | March 9, 2010

Realizing the Memex – An Information Challenge which Predates Personal Computers by Thirty Five years


It is almost thirty years since the first home computer made its appearance.  Since then there has been a breathtaking rate of change of software and hardware technologies.  These have revolutionised the home and the office alike.

And the rate of change is not slowing down.  The good news is that there are masses of opportunities to stake your claim for a new idea in this computing Wild West.  The bad news is that we still haven’t hit on the right or even a good way to do certain things.

Take the core task of managing all an individual’s or a business’ information i.e. the sum total of all its different types of electronic resources.  There is no single way of getting a single view of all the different resource types (documents, spreadsheets, presentations, images, emails, attachments, web pages) that we have which is categorised according to the subjects we use.

The file management capability hasn’t changed a great deal in the last three decades.  Sure, it has additional features such as virtual folders, some federation and better search.  But in all the main operating systems, it is still based on a hierarchal approach which doesn’t work well for large amounts of information held in many different places.

Search, of course, has been the upcoming kid on the block for some time.  Works fantastically well most of the time on the web.  But use it on the desktop where many files contain words which are frequently used and one gets a huge amount of results.  This still is useful when you have no idea what document you are looking for or where it is but is somewhat excessive when looking for the file you have just been working on.  And you can’t use search to share data.

The latest solution to the problem, especially in the workplace, is to employ some kind of collaboration tool.  These are great for a specific project in isolation to bring a group of people together.  But when you have to use a number of different workplaces for different jobs, they end up being just another place one has to go to find and upload stuff.  This all adds to an increasing cognitive strain on the poor user.

So here is my challenge and one which I hope to answer in the near future.

Show me the piece of software which will give a complete, convergent view of all my digital resources no matter where they are and ordered by the subjects and groupings that are part of the domain I am working in.  And it has to be something that can be loaded in minutes and provide an initial view of all that with no input from the user.

This software should then facilitate the process of finding any information by being ‘consulted exceedingly speed and flexibility’.

Of course, these are the words of Vannevar Bush in 1945 in his famous paper on the Memex.  Not a new challenge then.  But are we now close to an answer?

In my upcoming posst I will look at some of the options open to a professional in the areas of file management, search and collaboration.

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