As We May Think: The Nugget of Negative Space and Associations which Spring Thence

I suspect I am not supposed to do this, but what grabbed me in the Bush “As We May Think” was what wasn’t there.  Bush writes in great detail about how information can be gathered and associations built, but presumes that most of this information will have as its source the usual suspects (encyclopedias, printed periodicals, etc.)  He is almost silent on the notion of the end user as content creator. This is the blind spot  of the piece.

It’s not surprising.  Futurists do a good job of predicting things which are a logical outgrowth of existing techne, but have a poor record with things which require conceptual breakthroughs. Jules Verne describes fax machine like devices in Paris au XXe siècle , but misses radio completely.Interestingly , his description of an education system which eschews the classics for the practical arts and (what we’d now call) STEM  was pretty much spot on.

Blogs and social media and the like now allow us to think in public.  This is a notion all but unheard of a generation ago. It will be interesting the extent to which the major reading do or don’t address this notion of public thought.  Particularly , I mean putting in public thoughts which haven’t yet been carefully edited/censored.  Prior to the web, if you read someone’s thoughts, they were (most of the time)  already in an edited form that had been through several drafts..  Stephen Krashen, writing about language acquisition , describes an internal “monitor” that learners use to check their language output for errors and correct it.  The monitor is much more active when someone is writing than when they are speaking, since there’s not time to check individual spoken utterances without awkward pauses.

I wonder if internet writing has the effect of turning down all of our internal editors, and what that means for the future of written expression.

3 thoughts on “As We May Think: The Nugget of Negative Space and Associations which Spring Thence

  1. You are correct that he is “almost silent” concerning original content creation, but it is there. See section 6, paragraph 7, beginning “Most of the memex…”. The fourth sentence and following begin “And there is provision for direct entry. …” Also, note the sentence near the end of the fourth paragraph of section 7: “He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own.”

    Then the last paragraph (especially the last sentence) of section 7 describes production of an “original” item for inclusion in someone else’s memex: “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.” I say it’s an original item, because until he replicates it no one else has that particular trail of associated items linked together in exactly the same way: the associations built by the memex’s owner, as well as any original materials he scanned, are part of that exported trail.

    A difficult concept for me to get my head completely around is that in many cases, the critical original “content” being generated is the actual associations and links among existing items. The “new information” being “created” is that existing items A and B are connected in a particular way. This type of association object may be the majority of the information being created by most users. It is a key component of building upon and extending one another’s work, and is an element of many scientific breakthroughs. Person A documents one thing, person B documents another, but person C notes that those are related and if you put items A and B together in a certain way you get a new result neither A nor B had yet recognized nor documented.

    “Thinking in Public” is another topic worthy of its own post and comments. There’s lots to ponder there. I concur that my “internal editor” is turned down slightly, but it’s still there. The exact forum and assumed audience also has an effect. For instance, here I’m assuming I’m communicating with another ThoughtVectors participant (when in reality I’m publishing to the entire Internet), and I’m not cross-checking and editing as I would if I thought I was posting to an stuffy academic discussion forum consisting of computer science professors and doctors of information theory.

    Also, it’s very interesting that you noted “what wasn’t there”. The question “What’s missing” is often a critical one for finding holes and generating new ideas. In another post I plan to write later on my blog, I’ll be pointing to some “context-free questions” which Neil Larson included in his MaxThink materials. I think they were based on work by Edward de Bono; I’ll have to research that further.

  2. John,
    Your point is well taken about making connections as content creation. However, Bush I think imagined this as a private act, similar to the way research had “always been done”. It’s private to you on your notecards until you write it up for publication. Now, I make those connections as I go on my blog and people watch it happen with very little delay. This strikes me as somehow profoundly different, although I’m not sure exactly how yet.

    • Absolutely! The “thinking in public” aspect is a major aspect of the difference. Dr Bush’s memex concept allowed construction of associations among existing information, but those associations and comments were personal, and therefore inaccessible to the rest of the world, until the memex’s owner found them sufficiently significant and published them. Now it isn’t necessary for the owner (original writer) to even notice what’s so especially significant in what they created. Other minds (which have different backgrounds, experiences, and knowledge) can see the ideas, identify additional connections and associations, and extend them further in a much more rapid fashion.

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