diego's weblog

there and back again

who adapts to whom?

graffitiTen years ago, the PalmPilot trained millions of people to write in primitive scribbles so the device could “understand handwriting.” Today, social networks asks that you partition the entire world into “Friends” and “Not Friends.” Note-taking software may require you use tags to organize information. Others give you folders. Others, both. 

The idea that we should adapt to how machines work or how they model data isn’t new. In fact it goes all the way back to what we could call the “origin document” of the modern information age (if there was one): “As We May Think” by Vannevar Bush.

It starts off with promise. Early on, talking about access to information, Bush puts forward the view that we should build systems that “work like the human mind:”

“The real heart of the matter of selection, however, goes deeper than a lag in the adoption of mechanisms by libraries, or a lack of development of devices for their use. Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

By now it’s already clear that he’s not talking about something that adapts well to the human mind, but that attempts to mimic it, or, rather, mimic a specific reductionist view of the process of recall that mixes up a mental process (association) with a physical one (‘some intricate web of trails carried by the cells in the brain’). Bush then builds on this idea of trails to propose a system. He moves on to describe his memex in some detail:

There is, of course, provision for consultation of the record by the usual scheme of indexing. If the user wishes to consult a certain book, he taps its code on the keyboard, and the title page of the book promptly appears before him, projected onto one of his viewing positions.


All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. 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.

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.

Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.


And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Considering that he wrote this in 1945 and that his entire system design was based on analog technology, it’s fascinating to imagine how foreign the idea of “linking” two documents must have sounded to his contemporaries, not to mention the notion that you could (in essence) copy and share a whole section of documents. He also describes a feature that we haven’t even achieved today: the ability to extract a section of a sequence of hyperlinked documents from our set and have it seamlessly join into someone else’s document collection.

Even as Bush starts with the idea of associative memory, he immediately turns to relying on indexes and code spaces and code words. Partially this is due to the boundaries of the technology in which he was operating, but even within them he could have suggested, for example, that the codes be imprinted automatically by the machine to associate the documents by time of access. The subtle requirements of machines on how we operated was present even for him. For example, earlier he discusses speech recognition:

“To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? He does so indirectly, by talking to a stenographer or a wax cylinder; but the elements are all present if he wishes to have his talk directly produce a typed record. All he needs to do is to take advantage of existing mechanisms and to alter his language.”

(Emphasis added)


“Our present languages are not especially adapted to this sort of mechanization, it is true. It is strange that the inventors of universal languages have not seized upon the idea of producing one which better fitted the technique for transmitting and recording speech. Mechanization may yet force the issue, especially in the scientific field; whereupon scientific jargon would become still less intelligible to the layman.”

Translation: we must change how we speak so the machine can understand us.

Technology has advanced, but we still try to adapt people to software rather than the other way around.  Often this is required to adapt to technological limitations, but it is also frequently done to provide a “better” way of doing things, or even out of sheer inertia.

In the meantime, we haven’t spent enough time trying to get fundamental platforms and technologies to adapt to people’s patterns. It’s time for that to change.

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