Last week’s NMFS here at Virginia Commonwealth University discussed Vannevar Bush’s epochal (and, in its way, epic) “As We May Think.” The essay truly marks a profound shift, appearing just as WWII was about to conclude with a display of horrific invention that still has the power to make one’s mind go blank with fear. From Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour to a film that can still give me nightmares, The Day After, the mushroom cloud that signifies this invention hung over my childhood and adolescence–and I don’t expect it will ever go away. Now that we know how, there is no unknowing unless civilization erases itself.
But as myth, fiction, and science continue to demonstrate, each in its own way, there are thousands of demonstrations of the real problem to hand every day: human ingenuity. It’s easy to get distracted by the name “technology,” as if it’s what we make, rather than our role as makers, that’s to blame. But no, it’s the makers we should lament. Or celebrate. Or watchfully, painfully love.
The state of man does change and vary,
Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,
Now dansand mirry, now like to die:
Timor mortis conturbat me.
William Dunbar, “Lament for the Makers”
What shall we do with these vexing, alarming, exhilarating abilities? We learn, we know, we symbolize. Sometimes we believe we understand. We find a huddling place. We explore, and share our stories.
Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.
Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”
For several iterations through the seminar, that word “presumably” leapt out at me, signalling a poignant, wary hope as well as a frank admission that all hope is a working assumption and can be nothing more. This time, however, the word “review” glows on the page. Re-view. Why look again? How can repetition make the blind to see? Ever tried to find something hiding in plain sight? Ever felt the frustration of re-viewing with greater intensity, while feeling deep down that the fiercer looking merely amplifies the darkness? (Ever tried to proofread a paper?)
We console ourselves with the joke, attributed to Einstein, that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing again and again while expecting different results. Yet we hope that thinking, mindfully undertaken, may contradict that wry observation. We hope that thinking again can also mean thinking differently, that a re-view strengthened by a meta-view can yield more insight and bring us a better result than the initial view did. Look again. Think again. And, in Vannevar Bush’s dream of a future, a dream that empowered epochal making, looking again and thinking again would be enriched, not encumbered, by a memory extender, a “memex”:
[Man] has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.
What is this experiment? When exactly did we sign the papers giving our informed consent to any such thing?
Our ingenuity is the experiment, the problem, the hope. Our birthright may also be our death warrant. Is that the logical conclusion?
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.
The word “science” signifies more than simply the methodological revolutions emerging in Renaissance Europe. For me, it signifies knowing. We in the humanities enact our own experiments in knowing, exerting our own ingenuity both constructively and destructively. We too are makers.
Re-view. Analyze more completely. “Encompass the great record and … grow in the wisdom of race [i.e., species] experience.” As we may think, and create and share “momentary stays against confusion.”
No way out but through.