‘As We May Think’ – part 1

When Vannevar Bush wrote As we may think in 1945 he could never have imagined the technologies existing today.[1] A few of his ideas became reality in some or other form but where he “urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge”, his ideas actually affected a much larger population.[2] He came across one particular problem, namely that “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.”[3] Even in 1945 machines were relatively cheap and dependable, so according to Bush they would provide a solution. In his opinion a record could only be useful to science when it is continuously extended, stored, but “above all it must be consulted”.[4] First he discusses multiple solutions for recording knowledge, such as a combination of a vocoder and a stenotype to create a “machine which types when talked to”. He also imagined advanced arithmetical machines that perform 100 times present speeds or more.[5] Bush even describes what we would call data mining or machine learning.

In fact, every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine.[6]

Furthermore, he explains the difference between simple selection that examines every item and the selection mechanism of a telephone that narrows down its selection by classes and subclasses, represented by each digit. However both these selection methods use indexing, while the human mind “operates by association”.[7] He figures his memex will provide the solution, for it creates trails that tie multiple items together.[8]

Screen Shot 2017-05-08 at 13.57.57

Finally Bush concludes that not only new forms of encyclopedias will appear, with trails running through them, he also asks himself this: “Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another?” Imagine that instead of typing this document, a machine would intercept the electrical impulses and type, without the interference of the mechanical movement of my hands on the keyboard.[9]

[1] Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” Atlantic Monthly, July 1945, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/.
[2] Bush, “As We May Think”, Introduction.
[3] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 1.
[4] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 2.
[5] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 3.
[6] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 4.
[7] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 5-6.
[8] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 7.
[9] Bush, “As We May Think”, Chapter 8.


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