As We May Think

I decided to read the Vannevar Bush article, As We May Think, referenced by the textbook. The article was written at the end of World War II and Bush points out that most scientists, who have generally been working for the war effort, are about to return to normal scientific work.

As the book says, it’s amazing how prescient Bush was. There’s a section where Bush describes what is essentially a digital camera. Although some of the physical mechanisms are off, Bush gets the main idea, the ability to take and see hundreds of pictures immediately, right. Towards the end of the article, Bush describes connecting to our records visually, much like Google Glasses.

Bush’s most impressive idea is the memex. As imagined by Bush, the memex is a desk with translucent screens, a keyboard, and a set of buttons and levers attached. One section of the desk contains the material the user will see, stored in microfilm. Bush imagines the content will be projected onto the screens. Each document in storage has a code and the user can type the code to bring it up.

This by itself is an extremely useful idea, but it’s limited by the fact that storage organization is based on subject and titles, but not on an associative system like the one we use when thinking. To make it associative, the user is able to link documents he finds relevant, even if the connection is not immediately apparent. The example Bush gives is a user investigating Turkish bows. First the user might read historical articles. Eventually, the user might want to see how the materials used for the bow affected it. So he looks up the elasticity of materials in another book. When he sees that the historical document and the elasticity table are connected, he can “tie” them together so that later they will be shown together.  

This ability to connect related pages is a lot like the web we see today. It especially reminds me of Wikipedia. Of course in his model, the user is limited by what documents he has on his own memex. Today, documents can be shared by people all over the world. 

If you get a chance, read the article. Bush’s ideas are remarkable considering they were published in 1945.

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1 thought on “As We May Think”

  1. It’s amazing to think about how far we have come. I remember reading the somewhat-too-frequent-but-not-quite-annual “future science” issue of Popular Mechanics magazine in my childhood, but I’m not sure even they predicted something like Google Glass, which I believe will either sizzle and fail miserably, or be one of the single biggest societal changes in human history. It’s not too far of a reach to put facial recognition software (facebook comes to mind) and the google glass together to be able to identify just about anyone in front of you and know their social media, rap sheet, education, job history etc. Once a meaningful number of people start wearing Google glass, it will be tough to avoid being on camera for most of your day. What will change about people, when they know they are constantly being filmed, and no longer some anonymous guy caught on film?

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