Lost without a trail

I just read an interesting article that reminded me of another interesting article that presented a counter viewpoint, but I can’t find it. I don’t remember the title or author. I returned to the site where I initially found a link to the article, a compiler-type site, and the listing is no longer available. All I remember is that it was a researcher’s reflection of spending a summer in the stacks at the Bodleian Library trying to unravel a mystery in French history. Without my remembering any specifics, the terms listed in the previous sentence are too broad to yield anything useful. I’ve searched the usual places, desktop folders where I put interesting articles, stacks of papers beside my desk, my del.iciou.us tags, even the download folders on the various computers I use. I likely read it in July and it is now October, so my browser’s history files are also of no use. In moments like this, I think of Vannevar Bush’s prescient memex, which for the most part has been realized by the Web, but still lacks trails, recorded paths that can lead us through our thought processes as we moved through online information.

While the back button, history function, tagging, and downloads certainly help, they are limited. The trails function described by Bush would re-create the serendipitous moment in which, by moving between certain contents, we understood, discovered, realized some new knowledge (see page 7 of his 1945 article, “As We May Think”). Interestingly, his description of the state of information warranting the memex is applicable post-Web:

“The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.”

Perhaps now information is not encased within stone walls, but I often find information based on search engine results, recommendations from friends, or recommendations from compiler-based websites. Often, these recommendations are ethereal, disappearing if I don’t remember the exact search terms, forget to tag it, or delete the e-mail. True, much of this is a user problem, but my struggles raise interesting concerns, (1) although information is certainly more accessible, are we finding the highest quality information, or simply the most popular? and (2) can trails be created that preserve our search and find processes?

One thought on “Lost without a trail

  1. Pingback: Monica Bulger’s thoughts about digital literacy » Studies in Educational Technology

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