Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” July 1945
War is almost over! Whereas biologists have no reason to change their path, other scientists, especially physicists, are now in need of a change of direction away from warfare.
Apart from man’s [sic] physiological and psychological functions having been illuminated by science, science’s provided superfast communication and enabled information to survive. Within the field of scientific research, there are now so many records and they are so hard to find that we lack the ability to get to all relevant records quickly. But change is on the way, because we now possess cheap and reliable machines, the fortuitous developments in photography being a case in point: taking pictures instantly would help scientific research tremendously; copies could be made quickly; microfilms allow for efficient use and decreased storage space of records. Typing records will become increasingly supplanted by voice-input. Thus will be the future for storing records.
And then electrical machines are needed to compute, store, and print records. Machines for fast analysis of data are still in their early stages, but new developments will yield useful machines that free the scientist from repetitive though processes and create more space for creative thought processes. Consulting the stored records requires selection of useful records. This process can be left to ever-faster machines. The process of selection by machines could be improved by supplanting alphabetical and numerical indexation by associative functions as occur in the human brain.
Bush then describes a machine for individual use he calls “Memex,” that looks like a desk, has screens on it to read records, has storage capability, can be operated by a keyboard, has the capability to photograph paper for storage, and can be filled with records in microfilm format; in short, an enlarged intimate supplement to man’s memory. With such a device, one can build intricate databases, because many associative trails can be stored and consulted at will (and exchange with other individuals is possible by handing over a microfilm containing the trail and/or records). [This concept is what inspired the invention of hypertext and -links.] As a final thought, Bush proposes a more direct link between man´s electrical nervous activity and the electrical machines by way of electrodes placed on the human body, transmitting physiological electricity to machines and vice-versa, thereby bypassing the electrical-mechanical and subsequent mechanical-electrical transformation now necessary to do the job.
Bush’s Memex reminds me of a PC on which Wikipedia can be consulted and adapted. Bush claims that it will increase our ability to think creatively. But does it really? Isn’t Wikipedia (becoming) a sort of increasingly fixed collective memory that discourages us from deviating from its established body of knowledge, making us subject to it (i.e., making us think of it as a fixed memory)? And what to think of this collective memory as a foremost western contribution to the global village?