From The Memex to the World Wild Web: Understanding the Web as an Ecology in Decline

Vannevar Bush’s ‘memex’ is a metaphysical structure that offers itself as a proto-hypertext system. The ideals conveyed in his 1945 essay “As We May Think,” inadvertently brought upon the conceptual genesis of the World Wide Web.The importance of this essay lies not only in its accurate technological predictions, but also in the motivating forces behind his ‘manifesto’. Bush –or Bushstradamus as I like to call him—helped work on the Manhattan Project that ultimately led to the Atomic bombings; he has his essay published in the Atlantic Journal at a standstill in American history, technology and science. Essentially Bush’s essay is meant to make the American public and scientists alike understand that the technologies applied to the most inhuman acts of warfare can, should and will be applied to a cause worthier than bloodshed: democratic knowledge and an extension of man in the form of a machine. While our experience on the web may not fit Bush’s utopian utility of the memex (example: 4chan, trolling…) its affects have undeniably shaken at the ‘memex tree’. I use the word ‘affect’ deliberately here in order to bring the thoughts of Bush closer to those of Jane Bennett.

A creation like the web is an intangible thing, while one can touch his/her computer, pry open the hard-drive and have a gander, he/she will still not be able to fathom or envision the sheer impact that something so un-human could have on the visible and invisible landscapes of society, geography, philosophy, economy and politics. To channel Bennett’s musings in the preface of her book “Vibrant Matter”:

Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting –Bennett, .ix

While Bennett is attributing our destruction of the environment to our ignorance of the vitality of matter, I would like to take it a step further or in a different direction. It seems as if we are losing sight of Bush’s ideals. Our technological hubris and misuse of the web’s properties makes us disparage it as some commodity. The web cannot be expressed physically as a tangible entity in the way Bennett regards the subjects of ‘vibrant matter’ however it can be understood as a rich network of hypertext pages that has its content displayed on an infinity of screens and monitors. One might argue using Bennett’s ideas that computing technologies and the monitors that accompany them are composed of atoms and that the web is ultimately composed of the same “quirky stuff” as we are, from the microchips in your MacBook to the pixels projected on your screen. However it wouldn’t be difficult to disprove under the guise that the hypertext which makes up the web isn’t technically matter but rather code in the same way that written words are just scribbles on paper. Nevertheless, the paper upon which a book is written is composed of matter and the annotations that adorn it are permanently etched upon its surface. Moreover, as history teaches us, text and literature has had an undeniable energy, a vitality, an affect on our very existence, from the Old Testament to those pesky Twilight series, something as organic as clay tablets or ink upon paper, should deservedly fall under the umbrella of “vibrant matter” along with the web.

To come back to Bush, it is my belief that his ideal conception of what is now the web, has been denigrated by our misuse of it, and like our physical ecology, the web itself is an ecosystem that is decline. Whether it is the rampant sexism among those who develop it or the trolls and tracking/targeting ads that pollute it, it is incontestable that a cloud of cyber-contaminant is adulterating the web. It appears as if we’ve become spoiled by the convenience of this entity to the point where things like targeted advertisement or a smart fridge that knows when it should tell you to buy milk simply don’t incite the proper controversy and neither does the fact that Wikipedia contributors are almost entirely men. I believe the vibrant matter that makes up the web has the energy and the potential to realize Bush’s ideals and go further by making knowledge and content from every ethnicity and gender a contributor to the single largest organized network of people, a vibrant matter that creates its own ecology and its own ethics that govern its proper use. It would be judicious to rethink our ambivalence to open source and open content before things like 3D printed guns are in the hands of every idiot with an internet connection or before the internet of things, or the realization of Bruce Sterling’s ‘spime’ furthers us in the era of mayhem of the World WILD Web.

1. Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, at 101-08
2. Bennett, Jane. Vibrant Matter. USA: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

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~ by Nicolas Boulad on September 11, 2013.

2 Responses to “From The Memex to the World Wild Web: Understanding the Web as an Ecology in Decline”

  1. I found your thoughts on the vibrancy of thought and ‘intangible matter’ quite thought provoking. Lucretius actually posits what he calls mind and spirit ‘particles’ which are composed of the same things as every other thing in existence. These particles interact with one another through vibration and through essentially knocking into one another and those interactions are what cause human beings to act (move, think, etc.). I think this idea fits perfectly into what you’re trying to say, and although the idea of ‘mind particles’ is hard to prove I find it would help us see the effective nature of all things that we can’t necessarily touch or sense.

    -Jenny Hartman

  2. I would never have thought of the web as an ecology in decline until reading this post. This is a fascinating idea that we are contributing to the deterioration of the web.

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