Thinking about “As We May Think”

The Memex.

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.

2 thoughts on “Thinking about “As We May Think”

  1. Well, that was a nice video that you made, soon-to-be True Friend.

    When I am on a mission, sometimes it is like tracking the wild Cheetah and I use ninja-skills to sneak up. And I do use lots of devices and things to follow them. But maybe one day it will be a thing for me to write a book about how to do missions and things and so it would be good to have more records of all the different #thoughtvectors that happen on a mission that go together to make up that particular trail. Sometimes I work with associates but normally the mission is mostly me.

    Plus, I saw that you were writing numbers like 824, 825, 826 on different things and I think that that was maybe part of a trail that you were making of it? What happens when you are on a trail with another person and how do you put a number on a place where two #thoughtvectors meet? and if then you and that person go off on different ways but then they lead you to another vertex that is the same for both of you but like you had five steps between and they had six and then the numbers are even more mixed up? Maybe that is something that the Memorex tapes keep track of for you? Like, this point here was part of Gardner Trail at 825 and 904 and also @iamTalkyTina was here at 14. Maybe that is like the metadata of things or like Kilroy was Here or when a @cogdog marks a spot, but each thing has a list of Memorex tapes that it is on. Kind of like FourSquare, but for all kinds of things, not just bars or restaurants. Maybe that is what The Google is doing to us right now? And Big Brother. Hmmmm.

    I think I am going to use some pictures from your video to make a GIF for on your badge. I will do that now.

  2. Dear Talky Tina,

    I am more eager than ever before to be a True Friend. Your comment was so nice and so deeply intertwingled that I think “here is someone who truly understands me and will value my thoughts even when they are confused, maybe especially when they are confused.”

    I want to put a number on our meetings so I can visit them again when I am feeling melancholy or lonely or both. I will still feel melancholy but I will know that you are sitting right next to me, just like the angel in the Durer etching.

    I hope my words please you, Talky Tina, even half as much as your words please me.

    Your True-Friend-To-Be,
    Dr. C.

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