Memex as Icon

In my reading in digital humanities over the past few years, I have encountered what seems to be countless references to Vannevar Bush’s article and Memex— his suggested design of an information retrieval system using microfilm—on multiple occasions. Bush and Memex are held up as historical forebears outside the academy as well. A Google search for “Memex” retrieves 2.6 million results, the top-most referring to new software being developed by the military. Perhaps more revealing of the cultural reach of Memex as a meme is that a search of Google Videos retrieves 46,000 results (!). I have become increasingly impatient at the iconic stature that Memex has achieved and the use of Bush’s article as a historic marker in the field of information science as well as, to an extent, in digital humanities.

Although, I should mention that Belinda Barnet wrote an excellent DHQ piece about Memex and Bush, noting that Bush’s machine had never been built and “All we have of Memex are the words that Bush assembled around it in his lifetime, the drawings created by the artists from Life, its erotic simulacrum.

In 1980. Linda C. Smith performed a citation analysis of Bush’s article (which was reprinted several times) to “assess the impact of Bush’s ideas on the subsequent design and development of information retrieval systems.” Her analysis jibes with my impressions of references to Bush’s article. She indicates that while it was highly cited as a historical turning point in computing and information science, the majority of these attempts to historicize information retrieval vis-à-vis Memex, were “perfunctory,” and may indicate a lack of acquaintance with the article and Bush’s ideas. (Smith, Linda C. “‘Memex’ as an Image of Potentiality in Information Retrieval Research and Development.” Proceedings of the 3rd Annual ACM Conference on Research and Development in Information Retrieval. 1980. 351.)

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  1. Pingback: Just a note on the reading… | Doing Things with Novels

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