Sunday, June 20, 2010

Let Us Pause for Thought

In this article, David Levy discusses the Memex, a personal information device imagined (but never built) in 1945 by pioneering computer scientist Vannevar Bush. However, unlike most commentators on the Memex who celebrate its role as a forerunner of the personal computer, hypertext, and the World Wide Web, Levy looks at the legacy of Bush's idea in a different light: its effect on thinking and learning. Levy's assessment is ironic, for, whereas Bush's whole purpose in conceiving the Memex was to solve the problem of information overload, the information technologies that have been inspired by Bush's idea have ultimately served to make an already tremendous problem many times worse.

The problem, as Levy points out, is not merely that the volume of information available has exploded, but that the nature of networked, hyperlinked information, and our constant immersion in it, makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to find the time and space in which to reflect upon and contemplate that information. This issue has been addressed by a number of writers, but Levy takes the admirable step of bringing in the German philosopher Josef Pieper to help enlighten the problem for us. Leisure--the time and space for stillness and reflection--is the ground from which knowledge and wisdom can grow. Our modern mental landscape, however, is cluttered with weeds. Who has the time, in a world of incessant "information", to stop and think?