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As We May Think

Response to Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” (1945)

Strip the date references and gender-specific examples from Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think,” and you are left with a prophetic, compelling essay about knowledge, technology and the future of human intellect that is as relevant today as it was more than five decades ago.

Bush foretold the ever shrinking computer chip, before computers were personal; he describes the very essence of technology we hold dear as “multi-media” (photography, film, recording devices, typewriters) and reduces them to “electrical contacts,” describing how a master craftsman no longer has to labor for months . . .yet, “now it is built for thirty cents.” And the scientist goes on to assert that:

The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.

Indeed, something has come of it and even though the memex machine was never constructed, wouldn’t Bush be astounded with the progress we’ve made in building a “association-based” infrastructure—the internet, search engines, cloud technology and fair use standards? Bush foretold keyword-based search when he spoke of researchers having many fine thoughts, “but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.”

Bush asserts that vast amounts of knowledge were doomed to be lost because of man’s limited understanding and abilities to index information. We “are limited by resources,” he claims as he supposes that even if ancient man had the vision to design the modern automobile, he would have been limited by a lack of workers and resources.

What would Bush think of the collectivism and aggregation of today’s society? Fewer than two decades ago, at the advent of the internet, naysayers proclaimed, “Sure, the world wide web is great, but who is going put all the information up there? It would cost too much!” And now, voila! We have access to billions of articles, photos, videos and tidbits of information. Our internet infrastructure is so great that scholars are calling for the Library of Congress to create an online catalogue for out-of-print books. (Yes, someone should probably wrestle this away from Google.)

As computers become more human and humans become more computerized, has our quality of life truly improved? As we turn the specter of organization over to society (open source, crowd sourcing, knowledge for all) and we take on less and less personal responsibility for structuring our own world, are we really better off? Bush asserted that:

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.

We continue to build the largest library of accessible (to those with capital) information the human race has ever seen. Knowledge is indeed evolving over the lifetime of our race, but at what cost to the individual?

Is there no one to take up the cry for order of the file system type? Sure, word association is powerful and the ability to find tiny bits of information with a google or a bing has changed society. But there’s a larger infrastructure missing. It’s the societal equivalent of what David Weinberger describes in “Everything is Miscellaneous” as our inability to keep up with the massive amounts of data that is available.

. . .the solution to the overabundance of information is MORE INFORMATION.”(p. 13)

Bush did not foretell this: “link by association” knowledge turns into an incredibly personal and then cultural conundrum. As Weinberger states:

Our insistence on maintaining the category even though there is no compelling scientific reason to do so exposes a deeper meaning that is becoming more important as more realms break free of their categorical tethers and join the swirl of the miscellaneous: How we organize our world reflects not only the world but our interests, our passions, our needs, our dreams. (p. 40)

Are we making a better world with mass indexing via word association? Is knowledge spanning the lifetime of our race? Or are we just adding more noise to an already loud landscape?

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