1945, and Vannevar Bush writes a history of our future. No, he wasn’t the first to imagine a world-wide storage and retrieval knowledge engine. Paul Olet often gets that credit. Yes, he uses “man” for “humankind” and “a man” when he may mean “a human being” or he may simply mean “a male” as he defaulted to his culture’s blinkered views in that regard. And yes, he has dirty hands (philosopher Wilhelm Luijpen says this is true for all of us) because of his involvement with the development of the atomic bomb.
At the same time, for all his faults and limitations, he did extraordinary work in bringing scientific research into the center of university life via government funding. He founded the National Science Foundation, for one thing, thereby making the center of scientific inquiry the non-profit educational institutions of the nation, not the corporate interests. And he took the time to write up his vision in “As We May Think” for a general audience. It appeared first in The Atlantic Monthly, and then later in Life magazine with the famous illustrations of the Memex and, of course, the camera-eye in the center of the man’s forehead. GoPro cameras, you owe Vannevar Bush a debt of thanks.
As do we all, in fact. The Wikipedia article notes that “As We May Think” was both “visionary and influential.” Indeed it was. This article led directly to Douglas Engelbart’s “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework,” and it influenced many others besides. For additional evidence of its power over the years, take a look at this set of videos from a conference celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication.
I’ve embedded here a little video ramble I made to illustrate the idea of “associative trails” Bush explores in the essay. Note that I make a mistake late in the video–but that YouTube’s annotation feature allowed me to express my second thoughts. I hope Vannevar Bush would be pleased to see how I’ve tried to use the great Memex-like Web we’ve built for ourselves–a Web that he could conceptualize long before anyone could actually build it.