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Memex Revisited

April 8, 2010

I just picked up my first Nicholas Basbanes book, Among the Gently Mad, and am enthralled only 30 pages in. Collecting is a major part of my mental makeup, and I get excited listening to tales of "gentle madness".

Wandering through Chapters the other day, I noticed that the Kobo, an e-reader appliance similar to Amazon’s Kindle, Sony’s Reader and Barnes & Noble’s Nook, will be offered for sale next month. I’ve seen e-readers come and go for most of the 13 years I’ve been a web developer, and have never been tempted. For most of this time, either the emphasis has been on the wrong things or the technology just wasn’t there.

With the Sony Reader and the iPad now coming to market, along with the Kindle, Kobo, and Nook, not to mention all the smartphones and PDA’s, the competition in the "information appliance" arena is massively heating up. It’s always been a much-contested space, but I think the value of a machine that’s more task-focussed than a general laptop with a better form factor is now kick-starting the industry ahead.

In general, I have nothing much to say about the iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad other than, "So what". The accelerometer and camera are nice (along with the iPhone’s…ummm, phone). But the disadvantages currently outweigh them: prohibitively high price, no multi-tasking, the fact that they are (for the most part) disposable, lack of support after the model is discontinued, an application and content approval process that limits competition and choice, and the lo-res screen (the e-ink tech in most e-readers beats the iPad hands down). Apple’s boutique-style selling aside, these devices have promise, but it’s clear Apple is still targeting people who are more interested in fashion than in utility.

The applications themselves haven’t wowed me. I’ll admit to never owning one (I do have two iPods, but these are not Touch models), but the commercials give me no incentive to buy one. The "There’s an app for that" tagline leads me to believe that making a new iPod Touch actually worthwhile to own will involve spending a lot of money on apps, something I’m unwilling to do. The desktop software market already suffers from overpricing. Honestly, who has $1,000 for Adobe CS4? Who could afford Maya, or even Microsoft Office, if they’re company didn’t offer it to them for free? Yes, a lot of info appliance apps are priced in the single or double digits, but the aggregated cost is what kills you. And how many will work in the next generation of these devices?

And, for me, the biggest drawback is no information sharing between apps. I suspect that we’ll start to see consolidation (and higher prices) in the app store as successive generations of hardware get released from Apple. Meaning, many smaller apps will get rolled into one larger app and offered for a higher price as a software suite, and many of the smaller apps will disappear because they just aren’t used often enough, even from the folk who buy them. I suspect this will happen for other suppliers, like Android, as well.

The e-readers, I think, may fall into a similar trap, but will take a much longer road to get there, because they are more focussed on a single task. So focussed that hardware whistles will probably be few and far between (who would take a call on their Kindle?).

But I also think e-readers could have a much larger impact than the iPad ever will. Could. Maybe. Largely, I think, because they have the potential to be the hypertext machines that the Web never was. Let’s go back 65 years.

In July 1945, The Atlantic published Vannevar Bush’s seminal article As We May Think, the first detailed description of hypertext (although the term was to be coined 20 years later by Ted Nelson). Bush used the technology of his time, mimeographs, to create a machine he called Memex, or ‘memory extender’.

Bush found that the needs of knowledge workers wasn’t being fulfilled as well as it used to by more traditional means:

"There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today…The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships."

His solution was a machine that stores not only ready-made publications, but a person’s (we now say user) annotations, personal papers, and provides what he called "associative indexing", or what we would now call hypertext.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

Bush’s machine allowed a person to have blank microfilm and what he called a platen (and it’s stilled called that today…it’s the piece of glass on top of a scanner or photocopier) which would photograph (using dry photography) whatever the person wished to keep, allowing them to index it and associate it with other material inside the machine.

It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the memex. The process of tying two items together is the important thing.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the very first description of hypertext linking, ever.

Now, the current crop of e-readers don’t go that far, in terms of allowing you to author and provide deep levels of search and annotations. They are still designed around the concept of purchasing e-books, and don’t provide much in the way of searching or indexing. The Kindle allows you to do Wikipedia look-ups, and provides limited bookmarking, but that’s about it. It’s still purely about consumption. In this, all of the e-readers and iProducts run on the same business model as video game consoles: they are loss leaders for the content industries that supply what’s to be consumed.

Ok, fair enough. I buy books the old fashioned way and to read, and so don’t begrudge that model. But the promise of Memex wasn’t the purchasing of endless supplies of content, but the ability to navigate it in a way that suited your needs.

Imagine an e-reader that allowed you to not just look up words on Wikipedia, but also allowed you to plug in alternate providers (in much the same way Firefox allows you to add search providers to their search box). Imagine an e-reader that allowed you to save those results to local storage, and automatically hyperlinked all instances of those words, not just in the e-book you’re reading, but all future e-books you add to the device?

What if you could build a concordance automatically, for one or many books? And you could use that to compare how words and their meanings are used across your library? What if you could use that concordance to automatically build cross-references between e-books? What if references to authors and footnotes to other titles automatically became links to buy if you don’t have the title, and links to the title if you do own it?

What if search results could be saved and run again, like smart playlists in iTunes, allowing you to build personal ways to navigate your library?

Or you could plug in to translation services like Google Translate to translate phrases or passages on-the-fly, inserting them as pop-ups directly into the e-book?

Some e-readers allow you to make text selections that can be saved and brought up for later display. What if you could aggregate that into a personal Commonplace Book?

A lot of this isn’t really new. A lot of it is probably being planned, in some fashion or other. A lot of it is probably not going to be as dreamily ‘automatic’ as it is when you don’t have to implement it.

But, e-readers have one huge advantage over other info appliance products, which it didn’t have for many years: common file formats.

The ePub standard is open, and there’s a lot of software that will publish in that format. This ability to have all the content in a common format dramatically simplifies the life of software developers. Developers may disagree here, and I’ll admit I haven’t worked with ePub yet. It could be a very obtuse format to store data in. But a single format triggers "the Unix effect", which is a huge benefit.

One of the reasons Unix and Linux have enjoyed massive developer support and have outlived vastly popular operating systems is the fact that almost everything worth manipulating on Unix is text. Even directories are files. That common unifying data model allows a lot of information to be passed through different applications using the pipe on the command line. If most of the system was built in conflicting data models and mixed text/binary formats, the command line wouldn’t be remotely as useful as it is. I would argue that there wouldn’t be as many tools available on the command line if there wasn’t a unifying data format to manipulate.

Most of the e-readers are moving to ePub. I can’t say if this is pressure from the publishers/booksellers or not. But I can say that a common format will allow the e-readers to compete on features, not on the simple ability to display content, which is where they’re at now.

Authoring in ePub remains a mystery to me, and is something I’d like to learn. I suspect that in the future, part of the Internet strategy for major content producers like the BBC, CNN, and the CBC will be to add ePub to their publishing workflow. If you could output articles in ePub-ready format (Amazon’s major selling point on the Kindle is magazine subscriptions), why not? It’s just another revenue stream. For magazine and newspapers, it’s almost straightforward.

For producers like Reuters, the revenue model may be harder to crystallize. I can imagine a hybrid ‘all-you-can-eat’ model, where you would buy content in lots. For instance, you would pay $10 for any ten articles, $15 for 20, and so on. You either fill that lot up by buying an article you want to read right at the article’s web page with a single click, or buying personalized search results ("give me the last 10 Sports articles", "give me the ten most popular articles", etc). Once you’ve reached your limit, you either manually buy another lot, or subscribe to a lot package (once you’ve filled your first lot, you are automatically billed for another).

There are a lot of different revenue models for this type of system. It really depends on a web infrastructure that can automatically gather and compile into ePub a diverse range of content. I think it can be done. I hope it can be done. It would allow content providers to consolidate into larger clearing-houses, where you could buy 1 article from National Geographic, an op-ed column from the NYT, and the last 3 postings from your favorite blogger, all compiled into a single ePub file.

That type of content sharing could lead to a real revolution in publishing, making the concept of a book a semi-planned activity between authors, publishers, and consumers. If these types of reader-produced books could be searched (the most common pairings of articles made available as listings), it could expose people to a lot of authors, in a way the Long Tail never could. Tim O’Reilly’s article for Forbes lists out a lot of different options being pursured right now.

I’ve skirted entirely around the issue of copyright, I know. The current laws and the stake most large publishers have in their content make this a very large and distorting lens. A corollary to this is how digital after-markets will develop. Prior to digital books, publishers couldn’t effect after-markets like antiquarian, second-hand, and charitable shops, but after a digital file has been delivered, how do you create a fair after-market, for both the publisher, author, and consumer? I don’t want to comment too much on this, except to say Creative Commons publishers and authors may reap greater benefits more quickly than more traditional publishing concerns. But traditional publishers are neither greedy nor stupid…they will catch up and change the laws if they find them too constraining.

The future, of couse, is the result of many intersections, and I doubt anything I’ve said will come true in the exact manner I’ve presented it. But, none of these ideas are original, and some variations will (I’m hopeful) make it through the natural selection process.

So, maybe we will see e-readers in the future that look like a Memex machine you can fit in your pocket, that will allow you to share ‘smart playlists’ with other owners, and can display your favorite passages at a click.

In the meantime, I’m debating whether to buy a Kindle or Kobo. And learning about ePub.

And still reading Among the Gently Mad, and still savoring the pleasure of paper between my fingers.

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