Reflections on The Beginnings & Personal Cyberinfrastructure

As We May Think

As We May Think, Vannevar Bush (1945)

This is one of the most miserable things I have ever had to read. It took forever and hardly went anywhere in all that time. Perhaps I am utterly failing with this reflection by calling this article a waste of my time… but that is my honest conclusion upon reflection. I spent 5 minutes trying to find an excerpt that highlights how tedious this article is. So many choices. Here’s a random one.

The impulses which flow in the arm nerves of a typist convey to her fingers the translated information which reaches her eye or ear, in order that the fingers may be caused to strike the proper keys. Might not these currents be intercepted, either in the original form in which information is conveyed to the brain, or in the marvelously metamorphosed form in which they then proceed to the hand?

I want to poke my own eyes out.

Vannevar’s prophecies (and they are prophesies of substance by his own definition) are quite striking, though drowned in excessive, terribly boring verbiage. He seems to foresee voice-to-text capabilities, instant pictures, even wearables. Certainly he sees the need for and has a rudimentary idea for a sort of computer that stores and allows us to access and find information.

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. A memex is 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. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk. (p. 7)

That sounds an awful lot like your computer, doesn’t it?

He sees the need for information to be dynamically linked by “association,” relationships between concepts within each piece of information. Though no less miserable reading this in a history of computers class or in an introductory class in library school, it would make much more sense to me to read it there. I am utterly baffled at what the connection is to it and a course on digital citizenship. Perhaps I will be enlightened when I read the reflections of my classmates. in the meantime, I mourn the hours I spent on this to no benefit.

Personal Cyberinfrastructure

A Personal Cyberinfrastructure and A Personal Cyberinfrastructure Revisited, Gardner Campbell (2009 & 2012)

Gardner Campbell proposes the idea of a cyberinfrastructure as a key component of a college education in the essay of the same name.

So, how might colleges and universities shape curricula to support and inspire the imaginations that students need? Here’s one idea. Suppose that when students matriculate, they are assigned their own web servers… As part of the first-year orientation, each student would pick a domain name. Over the course of the first year, in a set of lab seminars facilitated by instructional technologists, librarians, and faculty advisors from across the curriculum, students would build out their digital presences in an environment made of the medium of the web itself. They would experiment with server management tools… install scripts with one-click installers such as SimpleScripts… play with wikis and blogs; they would tinker and begin to assemble a platform to support their publishing, their archiving, their importing and exporting, their internal and external information connections.
They would become, in myriad small but important ways, system administrators for their own digital lives. In short, students would build a personal cyberinfrastructure, one they would continue to modify and extend throughout their college career — and beyond.


In building that personal cyberinfrastructure, students not only would acquire crucial technical skills for their digital lives but also would engage in work that provides richly teachable moments ranging from multimodal writing to information science, knowledge management, bibliographic instruction, and social networking. Fascinating and important innovations would emerge as students are able to shape their own cognition, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium. Students would frame, curate, share, and direct their own “engagement streams” throughout the learning environment.

In his subsequent video, he proposes we take it even further and encourage and empower students to manage their own servers as a means for maximum control of one’s own cyberinfrastructure — or at least understand how to as a means of really understanding the internet.

Though I stumble on the term cyberinfrastructure and disagree about the level to which students should know about these things, I agree with his notion that building one’s home on the web and actively learning how to do so should be an essential part of the overall college curriculum. With the world and workplace as it is now, the majority of people need to have this sort of central web presence to point people to as they apply for jobs, collaborate at work, and fully engage online. Waiting until you need one is a terrible strategy as a robust website cannot be built overnight. Having an archive of your past work and thought is also invaluable for reflection, as well as being able to go back and reference something you did before to refresh yourself.

The technology skills it requires are similarly necessary — at least at a basic level. Setting up a domain, installing WordPress, and working within it seems sufficient to me. I absolutely do not see the need to take it to the server level, though I can support the notion that graduates should have an understanding of what servers really are and how the internet works.

8 Replies to “Reflections on The Beginnings & Personal Cyberinfrastructure”

  1. As I said in my reflection for the Bush article, I didn’t realize it was written in the 60s until I got several paragraphs into it. Then once I realized the date/time, it made a bit more sense and I was able to shift my perspective. I wasn’t so caught up in the future-telling of what might be to come, what struck me more, is the idea that when we’re at war, scientific entities come together to a common goal (citizenship) but once that has passed, then we often go back into our own little worlds and stop sharing. The general collective of ideas and knowledge often suffers. There are some good things that came out of the study of creating an atomic bomb, things like cancer treatment come to mind.

    • A conversation about the article or a summary of it is interesting, though I’d still argue even in that form it is not essential reading for a course on digital citizenship. 🙂

  2. Oh man, D’Arcy, your reflection for Bush’s article made me lol. Over the past 6 months I don’t think I’ve ever seen you respond with such emphatic negativity to something. It was awesome. I have to confess that I loved that article just as much as you hated it. I basically felt like I was living in his sci-fi prophecy. While I agree that it may be more easily tossed into computer/media classes (and that it was very long), Bush brought up issues that we’re still negotiating today (ex. preserving texts, access, making connections between tech tools). **I got halfway through this and then we talked about your post with Gardner in the Hangout. Thanks for being a good sport and I’m glad you stood your ground in your miserable reading experience. Clearly you picked up the main ideas, you just had to reel them out of the verbal ocean. Do you think if the “highlights” of the article were sent over to a different medium it’d be more palatable? I think this would be fun/interesting in a secondary classroom, but maybe not in this form (and also should include the prototype illustrations which are amazing).

    • A conversation about the article or a summary of it is interesting, though I’d still argue even in that form it is not essential reading for a course on digital citizenship.

      Also, you haven’t seen that level of negativity (or anywhere near it) because it’s very rare for me to feel that negatively toward anything, current politics aside.

      • Hey, I’ll take a stirring of aesthetic passion in any way I can get it. I love seeing divergent takes. And I do appreciate both your objections and the idea of how the ideas and the importance of the article migt be conveyed in a different, more contemporary way. Hmm…maybe an assignment for future Nousion cadres…

  3. Another reason for reading the Bush article is to start considering the paths technology and our use of it (and its use of us, etc) could have taken, but didn’t…because the reasons why are important in understanding the many assumptions we all make and because those unfulfilled paths may well still represent a future to come.

    One aspect that is generally overlooked in this regard, imo, can be considered through this question: how and where does our use of technology as conceived as a kind of external tool—where we do things like “building one’s home on the web and actively learning how to do so “–overlap and not with the idea of “augmentation” and “amplification.” There’s a curious friction between the externalization and internalization of technology (soon enough, even literally) that has informed the development of hardware and software from the beginning.

    • I am hearing you… For me, the miserable experience of trudging through it prevented me from getting the intended take-aways from it! Hearing discussion of the concepts it has significantly more benefit for me! That said, I am not walking away from this feeling like this is essential reading for this subject. And that’s ok. 🙂

  4. I am sorry you felt like gouging your eyes out *and* had to don sackcloth and ashes after reading the Vannevar Bush article. Can’t help with the prose style…it is, to a large extent, a product of its time and not uncommonly so for the time (I mean, look at where it was published).

    The point of having you all read it is to provide some foundation for the work of Gardner Campbell, Jim Groom and others, which spring from it, and to consider how the progress of technology and how we use it (and how it uses us) has both conformed and diverged from the early ideas when those ideas were just teetering between the philosophical and the practical.

    It’s also pretty amazing, setting aside stylistic problems, that he predicted so much from his vantage point…you’ve only begun to list the things that we are still exploring now that he predicted and provided a mental means to even start thinking about. As a historical, creative act, that essay is stupendous.

    But, considering that Gardner similarly feels the article is important to have read, despite those shortcomings, this could be an interesting question to ask him 🙂

    Others have brought up the question of the “server level” — so that will certainly come up in the discussion. I suspect much hinges on the definitions of “server” and “running a server” and being a sysadmin (and keep in mind this presentation was a few years ago). Does having a domain on a trustworthy host with a control panel that one knows how to access count as running a server and being a sysadmin? Or does one need to operate at the level of bare metal? And what about bandwidth, must one also purchase that raw from a telco?

    Various metaphors have been employed to analogize, most popularly printing presses and automobiles and the extent to which we understand their innner workings and/or are mechanics or operators, etc. All trying to explore that point.

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