TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex:…

TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Imagine.

We have our own memory and we have Google as our other memory. (We also have the option of the Yahoo and DMOZ directories.) Now imagine, if we could bridge the chasm between directories and search engines, making it much more customized to our likes and trails that we leave as we surf the Internet, and also taking into account all that we write in emails, blogs or otherwise.

Imagine a system that uses our memory and knowledge as the starting point. We begin by outlining our interest areas – the topics that form the ecosystem of our lives. This is akin to the Yahoo or DMOZ directory of topics ? only, much more relevant to us. For example, in my case the main categories of this list would be something like this: Affordable Computing, ICT for Development, Emerging Markets, Enterprise Software, Information Management, New Technologies and India.

If one were to search these topics in Google, the resulting set of links would be helpful only to a small degree and only for the first few times that we did the search (since the results would be nearly the same each time in a short span of time).

These topics are wide topics, and need to be narrowed down. What is needed is a taxonomy for each of the topics, which helps in further refining our interests. The Google search results, perhaps the Yahoo (or DMOZ directory) and our own knowledge form the basis of this hierarchy. For example, my outline for Affordable Computing could look like this: Hardware (Thin Clients, Refurbished PCs, PDAs), Software (Linux, Applications, Language Computing), Communications (Ethernet, WiFi, WLL, VSAT).

This hierarchy of topics serves as the basis for our interests. It gives a unique lens and context to the information that we browse on the Web, write in emails and receive as attachments. These topics will evolve as our interests change and as we come across experts who may have done a better job in building out a certain part of the information ecosystem.

This is an evolving information base ? built not by a centralised organization, but in a distributed manner by each of us. We all have expertise in specific areas. This was manifested in the early days of the Web through the millions of home pages created on Geocities and Tripod. At that time, the only way to build out these pages were by explicit and time-consuming personal involvement ? something few of us were prepared to do. (Basically, the web was good for reading, but not as friendly for writing.)

So, now, imagine if each of us could build out these personal directories ? outlines of topics and connections to other directories, people and documents. Much of this would happen automatically as we browsed and marked pages of interest, embellishing them with our comments. When we search, it would first scan our world of relevant information rather than the world wide web of documents.

In other words, each of us would have a microcosm of the information space, created and updated continuously by what we did. It would ensure that our ideas would have a context, that we would never forget something, and that we could leverage on similar work done by millions of others like us. This is the real two-way web ? linking not just documents, but people, ideas and information.

Vannevar Bush imagined just such a system ? in 1945. He called it the Memex.

Next Week: Constructing the Memex (continued)

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