Speaking of systems for indexing and filing information, much like those still in use today, Bush noted that, "The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain."
He goes on to say, "Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency."
While Vannevar Bush's Memex was originally conceived with advanced photographic techniques, cards, and physical indexes that would make it impractical if not impossible to be realized, we now have digital tools to capture our thinking that make physical limitations irrelevant.
The graphical equivalent of Bush's Memex is a graph structure known as a semantic network, where, concepts are represented by words on a page connected by lines that have meaning. One of the earliest formal semantic networks appeared in the 13th century in the work by Ramon Llull. Semantic networks have remained somewhat obscure and relegated to academia due to their relative inacessibility and formality, but their implementation in software began to appear as early as the 1960s.
Mind maps are another approach for graphically depicting how one thinks. These diagrams are more freeform in nature and are aimed squarely at a general audience. Tony Buzan popularized mind mapping starting in the 1970s. In traditional mind mapping, people draw topics radiating out from a central idea in distinct branches. This lets ideas, thoughts, and their implications be seen and explored in a less linear fashion than a traditional outline. Mind maps enable people to see the big picture and capture key ideas quickly.
With digital mind maps, people can even collaborate online in their visual space. While an important step, digital mind maps still cannot capture the associative connections that are at the core of how we relate things in our heads and are only suitable for one topic per map.
The Rise of the Network and Digital Mind
Although we may be a long way from replicating the human mind, many of the techniques and benefits from the theoretical Memex, semantic networks, and mind maps can be combined in a powerful digital environment for thinking.
Just as Facebook and other social networks, which model the relationships between people, help us leverage connections between colleagues and friends, information management tools must model the relationships between your ideas to capture your knowledge. Systems of information organization that focus on organization by connection rather than separation are essential to capturing knowledge and the way we think.