Memexie is the word (perhaps)

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POSTED: November 30, 2006

Yesterday I read some of the background material for a course on the ePedagogy Masters: didactical analysis of virtual learning environments. I was immediately and happily struck by the coincidences that popped up. The course reading included essays on CmapTools, peer-to-peer software, and the use of a generalised learning tool that was more than a blog or a wiki.

This latter article was called Beyond the Electronic Portfolio: a lifetime personal web space, and was written in 2004 by Ellen R Cohn and Bernard J Hibbitts. In it the authors worry about organisations leaping onto current digital fads without thinking of the long term consequences, because this might:

contribute to an ossification of the current prefabricated, one-size-fits-most e-portfolio model. Institutions and commercial entities that bind their energies and resources to current e-portfolio constructs may be slower to develop and embrace a yet to be developed transformative educational paradigm that more completely integrates education across the lifespan.

I was struck by the phrase “transformative educational paradigm”, which seemed to express our approach to the Marinetta Ombro project better than we ever had. Their vision matched both our use of Second Life as a way of trying to get beyond current definitions of e-learning and develop an actual e-pedagogy. I gave a talk last week where I tried to explain this by using the Lone Ranger to illustrate the meaning of one of McLuhan’s aphorisms.

McLuhan said that the content of a new medium is always an old medium, and about ten years ago, when I was watching a rerun of the Lone Ranger on television I suddenly understood what he meant. The Lone Ranger began as a radio show, and when I turned my back to make a coffee, and turned back I realised that I had missed nothing. The entire meaning of the narrative was carried by the soundtrack, and the pictures merely illustrated it.

“Look Tonto, two men are coming along the pass”
[long shot of two men riding horses along a pass]
“Look, it is them! They are wearing white hats!”
[medium close up of two men wearing white hats]

The Lone Ranger and Silver

This, as far as I can see, is the state of most current distance learning. The medium may by the internet, but the content comes almost directly from the classroom. From this perspective the Virtual Learning Environments course might turn out to be both timely and truely useful.

I was also struck by the authors’ refeences to Vannevar Bush’s essay How We May Think, published in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, which was astonishingly influential in the development of hypertext and the web. In this he talked of the need to develop a mimex, “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”. In his description this was a piece of hardware: a desk with two screens. In the view of Cohn and Hibbitts it could be a special kind of web space that was granted to everyone at birth to provide

a magnificently equipped [with software, communication, search, and multimedia tools], beehive-configured Web space that possesses sufficient organizational plasticity to accommodate the user’s developmental capacities and needs across a lifetime. The LPWS will thus be organized more like our brains than our file cabinets.

The virtual structure could consist of multiple cells with flexible entrance points. It would allow connections between internal cells, as well as seamless connections to external entities [Web based courses, mentors, peer reviewers, libraries, and so forth]. The LPWS will store searchable content [personal, educational, social, business] that was important in a user’s past and make it accessible for future use, as well as current projects. Since technology changes over time, the older sections of the Web space [for example, K–12 grade content] might be technologically less sophisticated, but would connect nonetheless to newer additions [such as postgraduate work activities].

I realised that this is what this project – this thing that is never referred to as a bliki – is attempting to do, in a very limited prototypical way. They are talking about something that would allow me to access all my school essays and reports, and the newspaper clippings I stored there twenty years ago. I am talking about something that will do that, on a more limited basis, from the day that I started it.

I realised some time ago that I need a name for this, and memex is closer than anything else that I have come across so far. However I am not building a memex, nor even a software equivalent. I am, at best, building a scale model. I played around with diminutives like memexie (which was the only one I liked), and finally decided that Memexex might be even better.

It is still too clumsy to be a memex. It needs refining and it needs pruning at the epistemological level. It is therefore larger than a memex; not in the sense of being better or more capable but rather in the sense of being fat and out of shape compared to the ideal.

Then Aki began the small avalanche of people saying that memexex was clumsy and visually ugly. Therefore this web thingy here is now officially a memexie, since this is an allegedly cute, and more or less unclaimed, neologism
Until somebody else objects.