As We May Think

memex

as we may think

As We May Think‘ is an essay by engineer and Raytheon founder Vannevar Bush, first published in ‘The Atlantic’ in July 1945, and republished again as an abridged version two months later — before and after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bush expresses his concern for the direction of scientific efforts toward destruction, rather than understanding, and explicates a desire for a sort of collective memory machine with his concept of the memex that would make knowledge more accessible, believing that it would help fix these problems. Through this machine, Bush hoped to transform an information explosion into a knowledge explosion.

The article was a reworked and expanded version of Bush’s 1939 essay ‘Mechanization and the Record’ where he described a machine that would combine lower level technologies to achieve a higher level of organized knowledge (like human memory processes). Shortly after the publication of this essay, Bush coined the term ‘memex’ in a letter written to the editor of ‘Fortune’ magazine. That letter became the body of ‘As We May Think,’ adding only an introduction and conclusion.

As described, Bush’s memex was a machine based on what was thought, at the time, to be advanced technology of the future: ultra high resolution microfilm reels, coupled to multiple screen viewers and cameras by electromechanical controls. The memex, in essence, reflects a library of collective knowledge stored in a piece of machinery described in his essay as ‘a piece of furniture.’ The original publication of Bush’s article was followed by a ‘Life’ magazine reprint that showed illustrations of the proposed memex desk and automatic typewriter (coincidentally, the same issue contained aerial photos of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, a project Bush was instrumental in starting). Bush also discussed other technologies such as dry photography and microphotography where he elaborates on the potentialities of their future use. For example he states that ‘the combination of optical projection and photographic reduction is already producing some results in microfilm for scholarly purposes, and the potentialities are highly suggestive.’

‘As We May Think’ predicted (to some extent) many kinds of technology invented after its publication, including hypertext (linked text), personal computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, speech recognition, and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia: ‘Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.’ Bush envisioned the ability to retrieve several articles or pictures on one screen, with the possibility of writing comments that could be stored and recalled together. He believed people would create links between related articles, thus mapping the thought process and path of each user and saving it for others to experience. Wikipedia is one example of how this vision has been realized, allowing users to link words to other related topics, while browser user history maps the trails of the various possible paths of interaction. Bush’s article also laid the foundation for new media. Internet pioneer Douglas Engelbart came across the essay shortly after its publication, and keeping the memex in mind, he ‘began work that would eventually result in the invention of the mouse, the word processor, the hyperlink and concepts of new media for which these groundbreaking inventions were merely enabling technologies.’

At the same time, a reader now may be surprised how little some technologies have actually advanced since 1945. It is true that, for instance, storage has greatly surpassed the level imagined by Bush, who wrote: ‘The ‘Encyclopedia Britannica’ could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk.’ However, technologies such as speech recognition and associative ways of indexing information are largely underdeveloped and most individuals are interacting with computers in non-natural ways, adapting to technology instead of having technology adapt to users. Indexing of information at the time is described by Bush as being artificial: ‘When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used.’ This description resembles popular file systems of modern computer operating systems, which do not easily enable associative indexing as imagined by Bush.

Bush urged that scientists should turn to the massive task of creating more efficient accessibility to our fluctuating store of knowledge. For years inventions have extended people’s physical powers rather than the powers of their mind. He argues that the instruments that are at hand which, if properly developed, will give society access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. The perfection of these pacific instruments, he suggests, should be the first objective of our scientists. Through this process society would be able to focus and evolve past the existing knowledge rather than looping through infinite calculations. We should be able to pass the tedious work of numbers to machines and work on the intricate theory which puts them best of use. If humanity were able to obtain 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 proven important’ only then ‘will mathematics be practically effective in bringing the growing knowledge of atomistic to the useful solution of the advanced problems of chemistry, metallurgy, and biology.’

To exemplify the importance of this concept, consider the process involved in ‘simple’ shopping: ‘Every time a charge sale is made, there are a number of things to be done. The inventory needs to be revised, the salesman needs to be given credit for the sale, the general accounts need an entry, and most important, the customer needs to be charged.’ Due to the convenience of the store’s central device which rapidly manage thousands of these transactions, the employees may focus on the essential aspects of the department such as sales and advertising. Indeed as of today, ‘science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than of an individual.’ Improved technology has become as extension of our capabilities, much as how external hard drives function for computers so it may reserve more memory for more practical tasks.

Another significant role of practicality in technology is the method of association and selection: ‘There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his synthesis are not likely to keep up with the current scene.’ Indeed, Bush was very concerned with information overload inhibiting the research efforts of scientists: ‘There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers.’ Schools, colleges, health care, government, etc., are all implicated in the distribution and use of information, under similar conditions of ‘information explosion’ as Bush’s post-war scientists. All these people arguably need some sort of personal ‘information control’ in order to function.

Bush concluded his essay by stating that through the application of science, which had recently been used to ‘throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons,’ he hopes could help the human race ‘encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience.’

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