Memexies: beyond the electronic portfolio

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POSTED: December 21, 2006

Last year I began to explore the consequences of combining a blog and a wiki. This project initially seemed to consist of two related problems: one conceptual and one technical. It soon became clear, howeer, that they were simply two approaches to the same problem.

Both blogs and wikis were created by individuals wanting to answer a personal need, and only later spread across the web and became standard methods for organising and presenting information. Blogs were created out of a desire to keep a journal online, and to make it easy to add entries to the journal from anywhere with web access, and to read the entries back in a way that made sense. Wikis were created as a way of making notes that linked together. The original wiki was created to make it possible to add notes on a topic in any order; to link them as easily as possible; and to have those links appear within the individual notes so that a trail could be followed later by a reader.

Now that both of these formats have become quasi-standards, and are quoted approvingly in documents about education and pedagogy, my problem was to work out what advantage, if any, would accrue from combining blogs and wikis into a single piece of software. This meant finding out what they actually did, as opposed to what there were often discussed as doing. This meant looking at how they actually worked. The technical issues were simply manifestations of the conceptual assumptions that the programmers had made.

Received wisdom suggests that the difference is that blogs are sorted choronologicaly and reflect one point of view, usually passionate; and that wikis are sorted by topic or category and are designed to allow whole communities to work together on building knowledge. If this was ever true, then it is ceetainly not now.

There are, of course, many blogs where passionate individuals write chronological journals in which they assume the role of committed expert within their chosen field. There are also many group blogs, however, in which communities of interest document their progress towards goals. Some of these are official documents, used by companies to present themselves to their customers. Yahoo and Google both have many official blogs in which various teams within the companies keep users up to date on developments. Linden Labs use their company blog as the only official way in which they communicate about developments, upgrades and technical issues in the virtual world Second Life.

There are many wikis that followed the much-discussed path of Wikipedia and seek to become self-correcting repositories of group knowledge. There are also many individual wikis, where people gather togather material they may want to use later, just as there are company wikis which serve as online manuals and instruction guides.

Ralf suggested that one crucial difference between the two was the way that they pointed. Links in blogs tend to point outwards to other blogs, and other websites. Links in wikis tend to point inwards to other pages in the same wiki. In other words, blogs tend to be seen by their authors as nodes in a much larger network, and it is this network (the so-called blogosphere) that gives individual blogs their importance. Wikis tend to be seen as complete documents: everything you want to know about Subject X in one place. These differences are as much decisions of choice as technical constraints. It is perfectly possible to place lots of internal links into a blog, and there is absolutely nothing to prevent a wiki being filled to the brim with external entries.

The question of what benefit we could derive from combining the two cannot, then, be answered by simply trying to combine the current uses, for then we would simply have something with links that pointed inwards and links that pointed outwards: a standard website in other words. I would sugest that the question needs to be rephrased: what activity can we imagine undertaking that would require both a blog and a wiki to be successful, and how can we realise it. To ask this is to move beyond “blikis” (hybrids built to deomonstrate that we can build them) to human activity – business, learning, entertainment – and to ask how activity can be enhanced.

One answer to this question is the central subject of Beyond the Electonic Portfolio: a lifetime personal web space, a paper by Ellen R Cohn and Bernard J Hibbitts. Their arguments provide a concise summary of my own thinking, in that they address the issue of what people want and what tool they could have to help them meet that need.

They suggest that in a knowledge society there is a need for an individual, networked personal harbour for everyone in which they can store both data of their own creation and links to material found elsewhere. They suggest borrowing the term memex from Vannevar Bush to describe this. I feel strongly that this is a mistake, for two reasons. Firstly it confuses the issue by making it difficult to differentiate between the hardware Bush was referring to and the software we are talking about. Secondly Bush’s project was grander than the scope of what either Cohn and Hibbitts or I have been discussing. I am therefore proposing to call my personal harbour a memexie: a cute derivative term that implies it is less than a memex and different from one. This leaves us free to discuss the differences without confusion.

A memexie can be seen as a portfolio taken to its ultimate extreme. Cohn and Hibbitts envisage it including junior school reports, high school sports certificates, class photos, every essay that author has ever written since she learned to write, an ongoing journal, and links to every online resource the author has ever used. It might be worth pointing out that Buckminster Fuller would recognise the value f this even more than Bush, since he created just such a repository for his own life. His even included every receipt for every item he bought during his lifetime.

The value of the memexie is simple: it is the externalisation of the author’s mind in a form that allows for total recall.

What was the name of the girl I met in Manchester when I was 16? Which novel of Jules Verne did I quote from in my first term at university? Questions that may now be unanswerable will become instantly acessible. There are difficulties with this approach to one’s life, though, in that it presupposes that privacy in the conventional sense is an artefact of an industrial age and will change or disappear as many other aspects of industrial life have.

To some extent this has already happened without much comment. Mobile phones have completely altered the landscape of privacy and availability. Being out of contact is now a choice people can question rather than an inevitable side effect of getting the bus tothe city centre. Arrangements are now infinitely malleable where thirty years ago a decision, once made, (to meet at the cinema at 19.30, say) might prove almost impossible to rearrange.

However the problems that might arise in redefining the notions of privacy, availability and transparency are nothing compared to the problems the use of a memexie will pose for education, training and pedagogy. These issues are raised by Chris Dede in his paper Planning for Neomillennial Learning Styles, in Educause Quarterly. The arguments in this paper become more powerful once one imagines every learner and every teacher having a fully-charged, networked memexie of their own, and using it as a hub for communication of al kinds. They will become linked centres of what Dede calls “co-instruction” and a key mechanism for “infusing case-based participatory simulations into presentational/assimilative instruction”.

Once we get beyond the issues of privacy there will be no need for manufactured simulations because my life will become your case study, just as yours becomes one of mine. It is here, in truly transformative pedagogy, that e-learning starts to become a new kind of discipline, rather than simply a new way of doing what we already recognise as “education”.