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As We May Think

Page history last edited by PBworks 12 years, 7 months ago


While the nation was still dealing with the experience of WWII, Vannevar Bush focused on how to transition wartime technology into future peacetime use. In the opening of a famous article entitled, "As We May Think," published in July of 1945 in the Atlantic Monthly, Bush outlined several problems that the future of information management would have to deal with: "There is a growing mountain of research" in the science industry. The "methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate..."


Bush outlined several areas of technology that could show the way to a new kind of information management, including new kinds of "microphotography." For Vannevar Bush, there were benefits of miniaturizing information including cost, but the problem of access was something yet to be solved.


Bush made several predictions about the future of information: "The advanced arithmetical machines of the future will be electrical in nature, and they will perform at 100 times present speeds, or more." Thus Bush had a vision of the future of information that was not only micro in scale, but extremely fast and "more versatile."


He also envisioned information storage systems that worked through mechanized "selection by association" which could beat the human mind in both "permanence and clarity." Thus the future of information would work more like Bush believed the human mind worked, very different from the information management systems available at the time of publication.


In the article, Vannevar Bush also introduced something quite remarkable considering the technology that surrounded him: the memex. According to the article, the memex would be a "device for individual use...a mechanized private file and library." For the individual user, it would be "an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."


The user would not only access information on a memex through a screen that projects microfilmed information, but he would also build "a trail" between two or more documents to "permanently join" the disparate information sources. As Vannevar envisioned the future, this rather small act of connecting information would have a vast change on how we create and understand knowledge. "It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together...to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails."


Though the memex was a small-scale information organizer for the individual, he anticipated that there would be "wholly new forms of encyclopedias...with a mesh of associative trails running through them." Bush also saw in the future the birth of an entire service industry of a "profession of trail blazers" who would create those associative trails between documents for the consumption of the rest of the public.


Taken in whole, Vannevar Bush's vision of the future of information was at once very personal and creative at its heart but also had vast implications for the rest of humanity and industry.


Bush admitted that "technical difficulties of all sorts have been ignored," but there are also unknown kinds of technology that will speed up the technological process of information management, and to simply ground oneself in technology that is known is "too commonplace." His vision was indeed anything but commonplace.


Some readers believe that parts of the memex idea foreshadowed the personal computer, the internet, and a host of other recognizable parts of interactive technology, including Wikipedia.


However, it is more important to understand how Vannevar Bush's thinking reflected a certain optimism as well as energetic vision of the future of information at the time that he wrote this piece. While other leaders of technology after WWII could have envisioned a future of technology and information that was grim and pessimistic, Bush’s obvious excitement about the future should be noted.

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