The Matrix: MEME 2.06

MEME 2.06


by David S. Bennahum

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."   -Vannevar Bush, "As We May Think," Printed in The Atlantic, 1945.

Silicon Valley excels in two things -- pretending old ideas are new and making faster microprocessors. One makes waves, the other makes money. Thanks to public-relations outlets masquerading as news publications, the waves often get more attention. Two years ago, it was General Magic with their "intelligent agents," our "digital butlers" on the "information superhighway." Four years ago Apple had their Newton. This year, it's Oracle with the "Network Computer."

Sure enough, the predictable press cycle is in phase two: INSANELY GREAT IDEA! TIMELY! INEVITABLE! (See Business Week for a particularly frothy example. Phase one was "interesting idea." Phase three will invariably be PICKING UP THE PIECES: HOW ORACLE BLEW IT. This latest Silicon Valley boondoggle, also as usual, is actually a creaky old idea from the days of time-sharing (the 1960s), inspired by a 1945 article written by Vannevar Bush. Then again, so was the Newton (based on Alan Kay's DynaBook from the early 70s) as were "intelligent agents" (based on more sixties time-sharing theories).

The origins of the NC are as old as computer science itself. Vannevar Bush first presented a similar idea with his memex -- an at-home appliance for researching interconnected webs of information. Memex in turn influenced a whole generation of time-sharing specialists who saw it as a metaphor for at-home terminals. Before the microprocessor made the personal computer a reality, computer scientists assumed computing would be based on bigger, more powerful central computers. These humongous brains, seeded around the nation, would form an "information utility" -- a public utility whose commodity wasn't electricity or phone service, but information -- into which by the year 2000 we'd all jack-in via memex-like terminals in our homes, as familiar as the telephone.

Oops. The microprocessor came along in 1970 and ruined that idea by lowering the cost of manufacturing computers to absurdly low levels and spawned Silicon Valley. Instead of a central computer, thanks to microprocessors you could now have an at-home computer and ditch the terminal. Today 33% of American homes have personal computers and anywhere from 10 million to 20 million Americans are hooked into the equivalent of an "information utility" -- the Internet. Put PC and Net together and you get...NC! The Network Computer.

A revisionist posse, led by Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is touting the NC as the next insanely-great thing, pretending it is a fresh idea. It isn't. It's a bad idea, an idea that deserves to fail for a good reason. It is anathema to everything new media is ostensibly about -- widespread access to information AND authorship. This mythical under $500 machine is really a personal computer stripped of everything that makes it personal -- the hard drive, floppy drive -- you know, the essential ingredients needed to personalize digital information, like write documents and store them. PC Lite silences our ability to create information and returns us to mindless surfing. Instead of flipping the channel, you're flipping the URL. And who gets to create the URL? The folks with better computers, of course. I'd rather watch TV.

Meanwhile, those who really make money in Silicon Valley, the microprocessor-makers and Microsoft, are watching this dumb idea unfold. What do they care? Ellison and company will eventually lose money, lose face, and sell a few more magazines. Meanwhile, Intel and Microsoft will probably deliver the real thing: a bona-fide personal computer for under $500. That, I might buy.

MEME and its contents copyright by David S. Bennahum. Duplication for non-commerical use is permitted. Contact me if you have questions. Direct comments, bugs and so on to me at

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