In July 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush published an article entitled “As We May Think.” It was prompted by the volume of new information being created by the scientific community. Due to advances in publishing, more and more scientific literature was put out, at an ever-increasing rate. With so much information, the need to improve its organization was looming. Dr. Bush feared that a researcher would be unable to keep up with “current though” and discussed several solutions which may be developed in the future. The result is a version of the desktop computer and also, arguably, of the internet; the presentation is science-fiction at its best.
Dr. Bush discusses how much information we have and how much more we will have in the coming years. He also details several techniques being explored in the field of photography, which will enable the rapid recording and development of photographs; miniaturization technologies using microforms, for space-efficient storage; and several other upcoming technologies which will increase the speed and efficiency of recording, storing, and retrieving information. After describing these technologies and their inevitable improvements, Dr. Bush envisions a device dubbed the “Memex”.
In essence, it is a tool to display recorded information. In addition, it has the ability to link pieces of information together into trails which the user can call up at will, in order to resume a train of though. The Memex becomes an extension of the human mind, and a user may find that “his excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.” With the help of trails, he can record whole trains of thought and be assured that he can recover them.
Some readers may come to the conclusion that Dr. Bush predicted the internet. In some sense, he did. He certainly envisioned a system for storing information, but that is not the main purpose of the Internet as we see it today. What makes The Web so powerful, is how interconnected it is. The Memex is a device which relies on an isolated local storage of information, so it is mostly tied to one user; although Dr. Bush does give us a hint that a means to manually transfer information among users exists.
Knowing what we know about the power of shared information we may wonder why Dr. Bush didn’t emphasize this aspect of information despite recognizing it? He grasped the general benefit derived from sharing information and even the means by which it could be done, namely, via digital signals; or, in his words, transforming information “to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted.” Nonetheless, Dr. Bush decided not to pursue this idea further. He stated that “it is a suggestive thought, but it hardly warrants prediction without losing touch with reality and immediateness.”
I think this statement needs scrutiny. A simple way to envision the Memex was through photographic technologies, if only because it is much easier for us to predict ideas using tools that already exist. The practicality of electrical circuits in 1945 was limited, while photography was a mature and well-known field. Since Dr. Bush is well-versed in advances in the fields of photography and microphotography, he devises an ingenuous system based on these technologies; however, the system is limited by the limitations of these technologies. For instance, it is fundamentally unwieldy to transfer microfilm. On the other hand, sending a digital signal is rather convenient. Had the advantages of digital signals been more obvious and established, maybe he would have envisioned the Memex as a device using electrical circuits, whose fundamental properties lend themselves to distribution of information.
So it’s 2010 and the question is, do we all have a Memex? For the most part, yes. We have general tomes of knowledge, like Wikipedia, which provide us with the storage and retrieval services of the Memex; we also have version control systems, such as Git, which provide some of the same function of the thought-trails of the Memex. In some aspects, we have even advanced past Dr. Vannevar Bush’s vision: we can share and distribute information through the internet and we can use our computers for what we commonly refer to as applications – and Dr. Bush calls roomfuls of girls doing computation. Applications are programs that take advantage of the computational powers of machines for aiding humans in the completion of various tasks. Bush makes several mentions of the computational powers of machines, but does not emphasize their potential as devices which can return input for the user. Today, we rely more and more on computers doing work for us and the many subfields of Artificial Intelligence are working diligently to reduce the amount of routine work we need to do.
This is really the essence of Dr. Bush’s vision: to use the Memex as a memory extension to the human mind, freeing it from routine thought. This, I don’t think we have accomplished. In fact, we may be straying more and more from that idealistic path and instead relying on our tools to be the impetus for thought. If our machines not only aid our thoughts, but also guide them, does this lead to better ideas than those that come from a mind not burdened by feedback from the tools it uses to think? Do you even think this trend is real or accurate? What examples can you bring to the discussion?