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Still Building the Memex

figure from LIFE magazine

Figure from the September 10, 1945 LIFE magazine article "As We May Think" by Vannevar Bush.

Originally published in LIFE magazine

What would it take for a true personal knowledge base to generate the benefits envisioned by Vannevar Bush?

The full text of this article is premium content


CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the April 2011 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

I found much to agree with in Stephen Davies's article "Still Building the Memex" (Feb. 2011) but also feel one of his suggestions went off in the wrong direction. Davies imagined that a system for managing what he termed a "personal knowledge base" would be a "distributed system that securely stores your personal knowledge and is available to you anywhere..."and toward this end dismissed handheld devices due to their hardware limitations while including handheld devices as a way to access the networked distributed system.

Just as Davies might have imagined future built-in network capabilities able to guarantee access anywhere anytime at desirable speeds to the desired information (presumably at reaonable cost), the rest of us, too, can imagine personal devices with all the necessary capabilities and interface control. Such devices would be much closer to Vannevar Bush's Memex vision.

Bush was clearly writing about a personal machine to store one's collection of personal information, and a personal device functioning as one's extended memory would be far preferable to a networked distributed system. But why would any of us trust our personal extended memory to some networked distributed resource, given how often we are unable to find something on the Web we might have seen before?

In my own exploration of Bush's Memex vision ("Memex at 60: Internet or iPod?" Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology (July 2006), 12331242), I took a stab at how such a personal information device might be assembled and function, comparing it to a combination iPod and tablet PC, resulting in a personal information pod.

Ultimately though, I do fully agree with Davies as to the desirability of a tool that benefits any of us whose "own mind" is simply "insufficient for retaining and leveraging the knowledge [we] acquire."

Richard H. Veith
Port Murray, NJ



Veith makes a fair point. For users, what ultimately matters is whether their knowledge base is ubiquitously available and immune to data loss as provided by the distributed solution I described but that would be handled just as well by a handheld device with synchronized backups.

Stephen Davies
Fredericksburg, VA

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