December 11, 2019

Vannevar Bush - "As We May Think"


This article was first published in the Atlanic Monthly in July 1945. Unfortunately the publishers no longer make this freely available from their website. However I did find this link. There are no doubt others.

With WWII almost over, Bush posed the question, "What are the scientists to do next?"

As Rooseveldt's leading scientific advisor, Bush had witnessed the extraordinary efforts that the scientific community had made in developing the A-bomb. He believed that physicists would need to set other goals.

This highly influential article is divided into eight sections.

1. Bush outlined the improvements to mankind that science and technology had produced. However, as a byproduct of this progress, he maintained that it was increasingly difficult for an individual to access, digest, remember and make use of the information produced. Progress required specialisation and yet specialisation meant it was difficult to bridge disciplines.

He believed that knowledge was failing to reach those who could make best use it. The means of storage, at that time, were outdated and often useless. He predicted that machine technology would provide solutions to this problem.

2. In this section Bush outlined a number of developments that could help. Naturally, given the time, his proposed methods were analogue in nature. Of course the likes of Nelson and Englebart would later realise that the solutions would require digital processes. Bush did recognize the need for data compression, but again his solution would employ an analogue technology, in this case microfilm. How long, one wonders, before our current means of storage seem equally outmoded?

3. Again Bush extended his theme of analogue developments, but most interesting is his belief that human thought has no "mechanical substitute". There is a distinction between creative and repetitive thinking; the domain of the latter, often complex in nature, belongs to the machine.

4. Bush predicted that machines would be developed to handle increasingly complex mathematical functions and in so doing, free humans to explore more creative realms.

5. In this section Bush stated that the use of these machines would no longer be restricted to the field of scientists and mathematicians.

Having discussed "the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record", he stated that humans were finding it impossible to consult the ever expanding wealth of knowledge.

"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 went on to state that a major problem was one of selecting the relevant information. Speed of delivery, often at great distances, was of paramount importance. Interestingly he describes post-war telephony methods, which although successful in delivering communications via switching mechanisms, could only be improved at great cost. Bush's solution was again analogue in nature, but it reminds one of Paul Baran's long battle with AT&T to shift the company to a digital communications system.

6. This was the most important part of Bush's article. Access to information was crippled by outmoded means of indexing data. Filing systems with linear paths of access bore no resemblance to human thought processes.

"With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature."

Selection by association, rather than indexing, offered a way forward. Although he doubted whether machines could ever match the speed and complexity of thought, he believed that the mind's deterioration of memory meant that machines would offer the permanence of data storage.

He proceeded to describe the "memex" machine.

7. The most important feature of the memex would be its ability to "immediately and automatically" link documents. The user would be able to encode these links or "trails" and use simple keystrokes to select.

8. These associative methods would, he claimed, lead to the development of new forms of documentation and expression.

"Thus science may implement the ways in which man produces, stores, and consults the record of the race."

Bush finally heralded the possibility of a new era, in which people could free themselves from the burden of memorizing this knowledge and enjoy knowing that it is close at hand when needed.

"The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome."

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