Thought Vectors - Vannevar Bush and Dark Matter

June 13, 2014 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

ImageOn Jun 9 2014 Virginia Commonwealth University launched a new course, UNIV 200: Inquiry and the Craft of Argument with the tagline Thought Vectors in Concept Space. The eight week course includes readings from Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider, Doug Engelbart, Ted Nelson, Alan Kay, and Adele Goldberg. Assignments include blog posts and an invitation to participate on Twitter using the #thoughtvectors hashtag. The course has six sections taught at VCU, and an open section for the rest of the internet, which happily includes me! This week's assignment is a blog post based on a nugget that participants select from Vannevar Bush's 1945 essay As We May Think. Here's mine:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior.

The historian, with a vast chronological account of a people, parallels it with a skip trail which stops only on the salient items, and can follow at any time contemporary trails which lead him all over civilization at a particular epoch. There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world's record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

This quote is part of a longer section in Bush's essay describing his concept of the Memex, a desktop machine imagined as an extension of 1940's microfilm and vacuum tube technology.

This quote stuck me while reading Michael Peter Edson's essay Dark Matter published on in May 2014.

Edson's essay begins "The dark matter of the Internet is open, social, peer-to-peer and read/write—and it’s the future of museums" explaining:

I am talking about museums, libraries, and archives—heritage, culture, knowledge, and memory institutions—and there is really nothing like them on the face of the earth. And whether we’ve realized it or not, my colleagues and I who work with technology in these institutions have been participating in an extraordinary project — the building of a planetary scale knowledge sharing network for the benefit of everyone on earth.

He writes:

Despite the best efforts of some of our most visionary and talented colleagues, we’ve been building, investing, and focusing on only a small part of what the Internet can do to help us accomplish our missions.

90% of the universe is made of dark matter—hard to see, but so forceful that it seems to move every star, planet, and galaxy in the cosmos.

And 90% of the Internet is made up of dark matter too—hard for institutions to see, but so forceful that it seems to move humanity itself.

And it’s not necessarily that the glass of museum, library, and archive technology projects is half empty, as opposed to half full; it’s the fact that the glass of the Internet and the dark matter of open, social, read/write cultural engagement is so much bigger than museums, libraries, and archives are accustomed to seeing and thinking about. And the glass keeps growing at exponential speed, whether we fill it with good work or wait in committee meetings for the water to pour itself…

Edson concludes that museums, libraries, and archives "can play a huge role in the story of how Earth’s 7 billion citizens will lead their lives, make and participate in their culture, learn, share, invent, create, cry, laugh, and do in the future" by going back to Tim Berners-Lee's original vision of the Web, where every person can be a writer as well as a reader.

Cultural Web sites, blogs, Google, Facebook, Twitter and are part of the solution, but Edison's challenge goes beyond that.

I believe there are three parts to his challenge:

The role of trail blazer: Just as Bush suggested in July 1945, I believe there's a need for people to act as explorers, guides, and trail blazers over knowledge they know and love. You can experience that personal knowledge and passion on a tour, at a talk, or in a conversation on a bus, at a party - anywhere you meet someone who loves one of these institutions. I think it's particularly valuable to have trail blazers who are also skilled professionals personally represent and communicate the values, knowledge, and heritage of their museum, just as a great reference librarian becomes a library's ambassador.

The medium: Museums have long had lectures, journals, and newsletters. Most cultural institutions now have web sites, blogs, and Twitter or Facebook accounts, which can be really interesting depending on who does the writing and response. In Dark Matter Edson goes well beyond the comfort zone of most museums into the world of video blogging, Reddit, Pinterest, Tumbler and more. Of the video blogging brothers who created 1,000 plus videos on the YouTube Vlogbrothers channel, Edson writes:

It is evident from watching 30 seconds of any of their videos that they are nerds, and they proudly describe themselves as such. If you announced to your museum director or boss that you intended to hire Hank and John Green to make a series of charming and nerdy videos about literature, art, global warming, politics, travel, music, or any of the other things that Hank and John make videos about you would be thrown out of whatever office you were sitting in and probably be asked to find another job.

The mission: A little less than a year before the end of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a letter to Vannevar Bush, asking Bush how to turn the "unique experiment of team-work and cooperation in coordinating scientific research and in applying existing scientific knowledge" during WWII to the peaceful pursuit of scientific knowledge after the end of the war. President Roosevelt concluded: "New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life." Bush responded to then President Harry S. Truman in July 1945, the same month As We May Think was published in The Atlantic Monthly. Bush's report, titled Science the Endless Frontier, lead to the creation of the National Science Foundation.

The Dark Matter mission is different, but it calls on museums and other cultural institutions to rethink how they bring together the heritage they preserve and the broader society they serve. I believe that the skills and passion of trail blazers can help connect the people and the common record of their culture by creating trails that can be seen and built upon now and by future generations. Anyone can now create a trail, and museums should become the richest and most welcoming sources for trail creation. Museums can help by opening up access as well as by creating and curating trails - across all media - as part of their core mission, a unique experiment in team-work and cooperation.

See Dark Matter and Trailblazers - @mpedson and Vannevar Bush for more quotes from Michael Peter Edson's essay, quotes from As We May Think, and President Roosevelt's wartime letter to Vannevar Bush.

Update Oct 30, 2014 See Michael Peter Edson's Internet Librarian International 14 keynote slides, Dark Matter 

Update Jan 21, 2015: See The Museum of the Future Is Here by Robinson Myer, The Atlantic, Jan 20, 2015. A thoughtful redesign of the Smithsonian's Cooper Hewett museum adds a stable URL for every object in its collection, as well as an API for accessing related content.

What the API means, for someone who will never visit the museum, is that every object , every designer , every nation , every era , even every color has a stable URL on the Internet. No other museum does this with the same seriousness as the Cooper Hewitt. If you want to talk about Van Gogh’s Starry Night online, you have to link to the Wikipedia page . Wikipedia is the best permanent identifier of Starry Night-ness on the web. But if you want to talk about an Eames Chair, you can link to the Cooper Hewitt’s page for it ...

“When we re-open, the building will be the single largest consumer of the API,” said Chan.

In other words, the museum made a piece of infrastructure for the public. But the museum will benefit in the long term, because the infrastructure will permit them to plan for the near future.

And the museum will also be, of course, the single largest beneficiary of outsider improvements to the API. It already talks to other APIs on the web. Ray Eames’s page , for instance, encourages users to tag their Instagrams and Flickr photos with a certain code. When they do, Cooper Hewitt’s API will automatically sniff it out and link that image back to its own person file for Eames. Thus, the Cooper Hewitt’s online presence grows even richer.


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As We May Think - Vannevar Bush, Atlantic Monthly, July 1, 1945

Reinventing the Web - Blog post on the creation and evolution of the Web and thoughts on making the Web a more writerly medium based on Berners-Lee's original intent and the vision of Ted Nelson.

Doug Engelbart's copy of As We May Think - with Doug's 1962 notes scribbled in the margins - Blog post also includes links to the Oct 1995 Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium on the 50th anniversary of As We May Think, with videos of talks and panel sessions.

Doug Engelbart | 85th Birthday Jan 30, 2010 - Blog post celebrating Doug Engelbart's 85th birthday, includes quotes and links to resources. One of the quotes from Engelbart's talk at the Brown/MIT Vannevar Bush Symposium became the tag line for this VCU course:

Doug Engelbart: ... So, moving your way around those thought vectors in concept space - I'd forgotten about that

Alan Kay: You said that, right?

Doug Engelbart: I must have, its so good. [laughter] Its to externalize your thoughts in the concept structures that are meaningful outside and moving around flexibly and manipulating them and viewing them. Its a new way to operate on a new kind of externalized medium. So, to keep doing it in a model of the old media is just a hangup that someplace we're going to break that perspective and shift and then the idea of high performance and the idea of high performance teams who've learned to coordinate, to get that ball down the field together in all kinds of operations.