I just re-read Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article “As We May Think” for the New Media Faculty Seminar. This is the famous work in which Bush, thinking about how to continue in peacetime the amazing growth in collaborative thought that emerged in World War II, envisions a desk-sized “memex” that can help people organize and recall and annotate everything they read, write, or think. It’s a precursor of our computerized age, but it hints at things we’ve not yet solved.
I’m struck by a distinction Bush makes–his memex allows for arbitrary, mechanical indexing, if you will–organizing information according to a system of codes. But he holds out the greater benefit and greater hope for its ability to connect things according to association, i.e. the ability to allow and record durably that at which the mind excels–connecting disparate pieces of information for sometimes esoteric reasons, but reasons that are deeply meaningful for the individual. The idea is that we think by association, so a machine that supports and supplements and records that is more valuable than something that records things, say, alphabetically by title.
It occurs to me that we are perhaps–the big we–the world, the library, the mind of the researcher, the mind of the information user at every level–in the trough between these two ways of organizing materials. That the organization by codes achieved its fulfillment in the traditional library, with its Dewey Decimal System or Library of Congress Subject Headings, and its corresponding index–the paper or electronic catalog. And that the big destabilization we all feel is perhaps our world slowly reorganizing itself around associations more like those the mind makes.
We can begin to see these association-organizations just being born . . . in the simple word search of the Google-style search engine (from which libraries have not quite recovered) . . . in the Amazon – or Netflix-style recommendations (I paraphrase them: “other users have associated this item with these items . . .”).
You can imagine how the change will affect our conception of research. In a recent post I talked about an MIT faculty member trying to represent visually scholarship in the field of Education–not as a list of information resources (as we do today in a catalog or a library database) but as those items in use by people, in ways that show how people use them, how people conceive of the structure of the conversation or economy of ideas that is at the heart of their discipline. Something like this would replace our current collective representation of the field of research, a shelf of books (the list by arbitrary aspects), with something more rich, complex, true, and meaningful: a network of ideas and people, a network of associations.
Shifting to association-organization will affect how we teach and learn, too. Why? Because at the core of learning is a group of people interacting with information resources and each other. We interact with the first for the core information we process in our learning, and our interacting with each other is the primary processing of that information. The ability to record and represent and compare how people make associations will help us see into both the ways we engage with, say, an article, when we read it, and the ways we talk to each other as we try to synthesize and evaluate and situate in a knowledge context that article. This is the nascent field of learning analytics, and don’t I just salivate for the day it becomes more robust.