One of the great perks of having a mind like a steel sieve is how it feels like the first time, every time. I’ve taught an undergraduate version of the New Media Seminar five times. This is my third time in the faculty-staff-development version. It’s my second time in the networked version–which I’m making rather a mess of so far, as the aggregators are not yet in place and there’s no ready way for the network to begin to know itself. Like a quarterback out of pocket, I’m doing some scrambling right now, as I prepare to leave Baylor for a new job at Virginia Tech. Yet even the scrambling brings new things into mind.
As I prepared for this afternoon’s seminar by reading Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” yet once more, what struck me most forcibly this time, strange to say, was the introduction. It’s hard to write a good introduction. New Media Reader editors Nick Montfort and Noah Wardrip-Fruin exceed that mark with astonishing consistency. Noah Wardrip-Fruin’s introduction to “As We May Think” is a case in point. There’s useful historical context, usefully complicated without fuss or pedantry. There’s just enough summary of Bush’s argument to give one a running start at understanding it. But the true excellence comes with that “secret sauce” these editors (in this case, NW-F) possess in rich abundance. They have the rare ability to celebrate a dream with real intellectual sophistication. Too often that sophistication distances itself from dreaming, at times even mocking the very notion of dreaming as sentimental or naive. (Of course, Doug Engelbart has said many times that he never got over being naive, but that’s for another post.) In Chief Culture Officer, Grant McCracken complains of “rhetorical pudding” and “epistemological panic,” and goes so far as to accuse academics of merely “phoning it in.”
In the introduction to “As We May Think,” there’s neither pudding nor panic.
Given a memex, a scholar could create her own knowledge tools as connections within reams of information, share these tools, and use complexes of tools to create yet more sophisticated knowledgethat could in turn be deployed toward this work. The memex has been envisioned as a means of turning an information explosion into a knowledge explosion. This remains of one of the defining dreams of new media.
There they are, the resonant frequencies I listen for each time I take this journey. Connections. Sharing, Tools that create knowledge that creates better tools–the beautiful recursion, the eternal golden braid. Once those frequencies start to resonate, the beautiful Hendrix-esque feedback loops emerge. Emily observes the memex is an instrument for sharing not only taxonomies of inquiry but personal (intimate, idiosyncratic, textured and irrepeatable) structures of thought. Sha sees analogies in acorns, and thinks about the way we all too often view seeds as nuisances and obstacles rather than the gloriously messy and inconvenient media of new life. A celebration of enduring, shareable trails of interest (such an evocative phrase) and essential questions of the usefulness of understanding and inquiry sound in Jennifer’s post. David notes the extraordinarily low signal-to-noise ratio on the ‘net, but retains the optimism of the programmer in wondering whether better algorithms just might help (as sorting the wheat from the chaff ought to be just the automated work Bush envisioned–as we see in spam catchers like Akismet). Looking through her journalist’s eyes, Mia applauds the way Bush explores very complex ideas in clear, intelligible language. (Indeed, one of my biggest personal fascinations with Bush’s essay is that it appeared in not one, but two general-readership magazines.) Philosopher Joel points to the thoughtful imagination’s idea of human capability itself as the platform upon which the visionary always stands.
And so we begin to weave these texts together. I return to Wardrip-Fruin again:
Bush’s is the first of many essays in The New Media Reader that look not toward but beyond the Web…. In addition to one-jump, one-way links, wouldn’t it be a pleasure to have trails capable of connecting through a series of information places in order to help construct a more nuanced map of connections in the reader’s mind?
Wouldn’t it be a pleasure, indeed. A more nuanced map of connections, usefully and joyfully shared, is one of my defining dreams. On my better days, I believe it is one of the defining dreams of education. In another editor’s introduction, this time to Bush’s essay in its original publication, we read the following:
Like Emerson’s famous address of 1837 on “The American Scholar,” this paper by Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking [human] and the sum of our knowledge.
I hope this seminar, our ongoing work together in the academy, and the memexes small and large we construct together here will help forge that new relationship–or, perhaps, reawaken the joy of the enduring relationship.