Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Ghosts of the Golden Age: the computer as an aid to thinking

The New York Times Sunday Book Review - Essay: Tool for Thought

One upon a time geeks dreamed that computers could help us think. They are good at what we are bad at, we are good at what they cannot do at all. Vannevar Bush wrote about that dream in the 1940s, though he described it in terms of microfiche. (He actually knew about computers, but that knowledge was classified. I don't know for sure, but on reading his article I was left with the impression that he used "microfiche" as a code for what he could not say aloud.)

During the minicomputer era of 1970s very innovative software was developed to aid collaboration and education. Most of it is long forgotten -- even I cannot recall the names (Plato?). In the 1980s the dream again arose, I have a classic Whole Earth Catalog book on personal computing full of fascinating green screen DOS applications that tried to help people think. Lotus had Agenda and then Magellan.

Then came the Dark Ages. Microsoft swept all creativity aside in its race to power, and then the wonders of the Internet led creative minds in another directions. There were applications in finance, health care and other domains that solved particular problems -- but many of the ones I know of have more or less vanished (Iliad, QMR). (Ok, so many went underground, into devices like EKG machines.)

Steven Johnson claims the dream has life left in it yet. He describes the experience of using a full text document management tool to manage his large information repository - DEVONThink (an OS/X app). Over time his large knowledge collection is beginning to have "emergent properties", to turn into something that's not quite his biological memory but is far more than a filing cabinet. Something akin to Vannevar Bush's Memex, or Dickson's "Encyclopedia" or Ted Nelson's "Project Xanadu".

I've had a similar experience with using Lookout for Outlook, and, to a lesser extent, using Yahoo Desktop Search (X1). A lifelong knowledge repository seems to compensate, in some ways, for the memory loss of an aging and overflowing brain. Tools like DevonThink, YDS and Lookout are helping make this repository real.

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