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Summary: Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think”

As Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development for the U.S. Government, Vannevar Bush was one of the leaders on the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb. For scientists, the Second World War was a time of discovery and mass technological and theoretical advancement. However, with the war ending, Vannevar Bush wondered what the scientific community was to do now? In “As We May Think,” Bush focuses on the idea of extending the human memory and the human ability to catalogue, categorize, and recollect the totality of human information. He states: “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 that of an individual” (Bush 2). With the ability to preserve information far beyond the lifespan on any individual the problem then comes of how to access and disseminate that information in a valuable way. As Bush notes, “[a] record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted” (Bush 3).

Bush then goes on to suggest tiny cameras with tiny film taking tiny pictures that could free up the arms of researchers. He also talks about the “arithmetic machines” of the future that will be electrical in nature. When Bush muses on the technological specifics of the future, his conclusions—in terms of the mechanics—seem ridiculous to the modern reader. This is because Bush was limited to thinking of analogue mediums of recording and processing; his ideas were ultimately limited by the knowledge of his time.

Eventually, Bush comes to his ultimate machine, “the memex,” and illuminates the ultimate problem: “Thus far we seem to be worse off than before—for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge” (Bush 8). Bush’s solution to the problem of information consultation is a device called the memex. The memex is essentially a desk with two screens on it, switches and leavers, and magnetic tape for recording and storing data. Technical specifics aside, the brilliance of the memex and how it tackles the problem of information access is by way of associative indexing “whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another” (Bush 11). Basically, Bush conceived of a machine that worked in much the same way the world wide web does by way of associations and hypertextuality. By creating “trails” of associated information, one could create and share collections of connected data which would not only be more intuitive, but would rapidly increase the speed and depth of research and information sharing.

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The Atlantic. July, 1945. Web. 3 Feb. 2013. (link to full text).

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