Memex & Facebook: Similar tools. Similar goals. Divergent paths.

Completion Date: 
2010
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In comparing the features of Vannevar Bush’s mythical Memex and Mark Zuckerberg’s social network powerhouse Facebook, this paper highlights the similarities in each system’s lofty goals while pointing out differences in the paths taken to achieve them. Whereas both systems allow users to collect, consult, and share data, Bush’s focus is on introspection while Zuckerberg’s is on over sharing.

As he emerged from work on the Manhattan Project, Bush’s concern was focused on the research techniques available to his fellow physicists. He believed that man was not equipped with the proper tools to collect, consult, and share one’s findings. As he wrote in The Atlantic Monthly, "Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems" (47).

Bush was mainly concerned with using technology to replicate – or at least supplement – processes of the human brain. As such, the collective value of the individual technologies was fully illustrated once they came together in his vision of the Memex,. Central to the Memex concept were trails of data: associative, rather than alphabetical or otherwise indexed content. Much like the human thought association process, individual pieces of research were collected from disparate sources, transferred to and from a storage medium (microfilm), and tagged with unique identifying "addresses." These records of trails, of course, could also be shared or duplicated so that peers and colleagues would have the ability to view and annotate one's research (44-46).

A Facebook user's ability to upload notes, photographs and videos mimics Bush's vision of a multi-media recording tool for researchers. The Facebook platform (encompassing Facebook.com, mobile applications, and any technology utilizing its application programming interface) uses all of the data it has access to and creates its own version of Bush's Memex trails. If Berners-Lee's World Wide Web is an implementation of "a sea of interactive shared knowledge" inspired by Bush's Memex (1995 Vannevar Bush Symposium), then Facebook's intelligent recommendation and filtering engine is a Memex trail, created on the fly.

From a mechanics standpoint, both Facebook and the Memex provide the technical ability to collect, consult, and share records of data. But what of higher level objectives? Vannevar Bush felt that man's "excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand" – improving mankind by making recorded data more accessible. His hope was that enhancing the scientific process "may yet allow [mankind] truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience" (47).

Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, also believes that increasing accessibility will improve man's experience. However this experience, in his opinion, is not one of reflection. Instead, he claims that he is “trying to make the world a more open place" (Vargas). The site itself declares that "We are building Facebook to make the world more open and transparent, which we believe will create greater understanding and connection." Zuckerberg and his team believe they can achieve this by encouraging the use of its technology to promote "Social Value", "Common Welfare", and "One World" – among other principles ("Facebook Principles").

That the world is using Facebook's platform in general is not up to much debate; the social networking site and others like it were being accessed on a daily basis by 38% of adult Internet users in May 2010 (Online Activities). The question being discussed by technologists and sociologists alike is whether "trying to make the world a more open place" is helping or hurting us as individuals and as a society.

There are reports from both sides: the General Social Survey reports that the number of “confidants” in one’s life has dropped, while the Pew Internet & American Life Project claims social networking is making individuals more accessible to their support systems. Malcom Gladwell argues in a highly debated piece in The New Yorker that online “activism” is impotent in comparison to “real world” activism. At the same time, Facebook has become a “petri dish for social sciences,” providing researchers valuable insight into the lives of its users – something that would certainly encourage Vannevar Bush.

When Bush declared that "there will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things," (41), he was describing an introspective process – one that helps those millions make sure they have access to their own detailed affairs later on. Facebook, and its ever changing privacy settings, is making sure that another large set of individuals – an "extended network" set – have access to the detailed affairs of the individual user. This fundamental difference is where Facebook and the Memex's shared continuum of mechanics (collect, consult, share) to philosophical goals (make the world a better place) branches: Bush gets to the goal via indexed and shared work, Zuckerberg via indexed and shared "goings on."

But Vannevar Bush was never able to realize his vision for Memex as he laid it out in The Atlantic Monthly 65 years ago. There was no opportunity to evaluate whether it would make researchers feel more or less isolated, whether it would encourage social action or social setback. The multitude of technological hurdles that had to be leapt in order to build one never provided him the chance to consider if scale (a Memex in every lab, or even home) was something for which he should strive. He and Zuckerberg both look to the same horizon, however. They both start with the same basic building blocks. And so Bush's mechanical and philosophical goals can be seen echoed in those of the contemporary and perhaps over-populated version of the Memex: Facebook.

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