In his 1945 Atlantic Monthly essay As We May Think, Vannevar Bush famously imagined the memex, a mechanism that would augment human memory. This idea of mental augmentation inspired Doug Engelbart, and we’ve been chasing the dream ever since. On this week’s Interviews with Innovators, Phil Libin discusses EverNote, a new software-plus-services offering that aims to become your memex.
Listeners may recall that Phil appeared on the show once before. In fact he was the first guest in this series. Then he was CEO of Corestreet, a company tackling the problem of large-scale credentials validation in really interesting ways. Now, as EverNote’s CEO, he’s tackling a very different problem. But although EverNote is an application for ordinary folks rather than for governments and major institutions, it raises its own set of scale issues. And not just in terms of scaling out numbers of users and quantities of storage. EverNote wants to scale in the dimension of time as well.
Like me, Phil’s a huge fan of the Long Now Foundation. When he says that EverNote wants to guarantee the integrity of the digital objects that you commit to it forever, he’s not kidding.
While it’s refreshing to see a Web 2.0 company taking this long view, Phil admits that addressing the forever challenge in a meaningful way is beyond the means of EverNote. I’d add that it’s beyond any individual organization, and will require a federation of players to hammer out not only technical standards, but also shared business arrangements.
That’s not going to happen anytime soon, but then EverNote isn’t currently making guarantees that sentimental memorabilia will be preserved for your great-grandchildren. Instead it wants to guarantee that you’ll have effective near-term use of operational memorabilia — key documents, and in particular photos from which it finds, extracts, and indexes text.
The idea with this photo feature is that you can take pictures of receipts, wine labels, magazine pages, or event posters, dump the pictures into EverNote, and then find the photos by searching for the text in them. EverNote’s secret sauce here is its ability to find text not only in high-res scans, but also in “crappy cellphone photos taken at an angle.”
As Phil points out, from EverNote’s perspective the world comes at its users in two modes. First, when they’re away from their computers and out in the world, usually with some kind of camera. Second, when they’re at their computers, in which case they can take clippings from the web, or forward email.
I’m in that second mode a lot, so we’ll see whether EverNote becomes another of the memory augmentation methods I already use. These include blogging, email, and social bookmarking. Each method serves a communication function but also provides a repository where I often stash things purely so I can find them later.
Here’s an interesting and counter-intuitive aspect of EverNote. Human memory degrades over time. Digital memories, however, not only retain full fidelity, they can actually improve over time. Faces that you can’t find in your EverNote archive today may become recognizable next month or next year.
That’s true not only for EverNote, of course, but also for any system to which we commit digital objects. Human augmentation is powerful magic. We’re only starting to realize what it can do for us. And, I should add, to us.