Trailblazing the Internet

Earlier this afternoon I posted on Vannevar Bush’s essay “As We May Think“, an article that discusses the future of information technology from the perspective of a scientist in 1945.  It was for me one of those fabulous little discoveries that are the product of actually reading the web, and it has many elements that I would like to discuss beyond what I will be able to say in this and the previous post, but I will just strongly encourage people to read it for themselves and let these two posts be sufficient.

My favourite portion of Bush’s essay comes from the section where he is imagining a machine that might in the future enable people to manage what would essentially be digital libraries. The machine he imagines is very much like the personal computer, and the management system he imagines is like a personal internet, complete with hyperlinks, which he calls associative indexing and understands to be a more linear set of associations between texts.  These texts are all joined by a set of keywords, something like a tag system, and the texts can be joined by these words into any number of trails or paths through the mass of information that is the virtual library.

He then describes the function of the researcher in this new made of reading and writing, saying, “There [will be] a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master [will become], not only his additions to the world’s record, but […] the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.”

I love the metaphor of the trailblazer here, and its connotations have much to recommend it, so I cannot resist applying it in the context of the internet, which Bush only partially foresees.  The trailblazer is one who identifies a trail by leaving visible marks or blazes along the way.  The path that is marked is not necessarily the only one, because the choices of the trailblazer are to a certain extent personal and idiosyncratic, but in every case there is left a definite trail, leading from one point to another in order to facilitate others in making the same journey. Further, the word ‘blaze’ is from the same root as the word ‘blazon’, which means, in heraldic terms, a personal mark or arms that identifies the bearer.  Incorporating both senses, the trail-blazer is the one who marks a path for others to follow and who marks it with a sign that identifies the one who has made it.

In terms of the internet, I imagine a way for people to mark their paths through the web, not just the random wanderings that they happen to make as they explore the forest, but the habitual and useful paths that they discover by means of these wanderings, the pathways that might enable others to walk behind them.  Just as with a physical path, these digital pathways would never be essential or absolute.  Quite the opposite, because they would also identify the one who had made them, they would always be recognizable as a personal and idiosyncratic trail, but one that the trailblazer found valuable enough to mark and to share.

I do not know if the technology to do something like this exists already, but it should.  It should be possible for me to establish my own trails, my own links through the web, rather than relying on the links that others have made for me.  It should be possible for me to share these trails with other people and to follow the trails that others have made.  It should be possible for me, not merely to track where I have been, but to track my favourite paths, to take others along these paths with me, and to have others, even those I may never meet, follow the blazes that I have left behind me. These things should be possible because, as Bush’s argument implies, in a world as full of information as ours is, contributing to knowledge has as much to do with finding ways through the information as it has to do with adding to it.

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