Bush's Memex as Poetic Machine

George P. Landow, Professor of English and Art History, Brown University

[Pages 17-18 in print version. © the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992].

Bush's idea of the memex, to which he occasionally turned his thoughts for three decades, directly influenced Nelson, Douglas Englebart, Andries van Dam, and other pioneers in computer hypertext, including the group at the Brown University's Institute for Research in Information and Scholarship (IRIS) who created Intermedia. In "As We May Think" and "Memex Revisited" Bush proposed the notion of blocks of text joined by links, and he also introduced the terms links, linkages, trails , and web to describe his new conception of textuality. Bush's description of the memex contains several other seminal, even radical, conceptions of textuality. It demands, first of all, a radical reconfiguration of the practice of reading and writing, in which both activities draw closer together than is possible with book technology. Second, despite the fact that he conceived of the memex before the advent of digital computing, Bush perceives that something like virtual textuality is essential for the changes he advocates. Third, his reconfiguration of text introduces three entirely new elements -- associative indexing (or links), trails of such links, and sets or webs of such trails. These new elements in turn produce the conception of a flexible, customizable text, one that is open -- and perhaps vulnerable -- to the demands of each reader. They also produce a concept of multiple textuality, since within the memex world texts refers to (a) individual reading units that constitute a traditional "work," (b) those entire works, (c) sets of documents created by trails, and perhaps (d) those trails themselves without accompanying documents.

Perhaps most interesting to one considering the relation of Bush's ideas to contemporary critical and cultural theory is that this engineer began by rejecting some of the fundamental assumptions of the information technology that had increasingly dominated -- and some would say largely created -- Western thought since Gutenberg. Moreover, Bush wished to replace the essentially linear fixed methods that had produced the triumphs of capitalism and industrialism with what are essentially poetic machines -- machines that work according to analogy and association, machines that capture and create the anarchic brilliance of human imagination. Bush, we perceive, assumed that science and poetry work in essentially the same way.


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