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.memex

Question:

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?

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~ by Klaas van der Linden on March 5, 2009.

6 Responses to “Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think,” July 1945”

  1. I understand your comparison of the Memex to the PC with Wikipedia. Then you state that Bush proposed it [the Memex] would increase our ability to think creatively. And then you make a tricky move by posing if it really does and reflecting on Wikipedia whilst the statement was directed at the Memex. You are hereby endangering your own analogy!

    First off, Wikipedia is not collective memory, but rather collective intelligence. I find this an important distinction because the “trail” in Memex binds entire items [the associative indexing having informed rather than constituting hypertext] – the trail devised is INDIVIDUAL. The associations of the Memex seem more like a mind map of individual creative thought.

    Secondly, digitalization of information [Bush seems to have a rather explicit interest in materality] “threatens” the permanence of the records. If you surf to the backpage of Wikipedia you have entire records of the changes made to entries. And ofcourse you have the opportunity to edit entries yourself [albeit that only a small % of people actually do and manage these pages]. It still lacks autonomy and hereby recognition as an established body of knowledge.

    But maybe I haven’t understood your question. As memory would seem anything but fixed. And if with memory you meant a form of an acrhive than I would have to refer you back to my second point. With fixed you could also have meant the localization of Wikipedia and paid justice to the permanence of the information through calling it memory. My problem with that would be that the Memex is still relatively linear and the paths between entire items is based on personal needs and desires rather than a concern with the collective.

  2. I think the most important aspect of the article nowadays is Bush’s claim that science will free individuals from repetitive thought and increase the time spent at creative thought. So my question was meant to invoke a discussion on the validity of this claim. Wikipedia might not be the best of examples, but I thought that thinking over the entire concept of computers as create-store-consult machines would be a little complex. Maybe a better question would be:
    Did you ever had the experience that (communication) science did not increase your creative thought and at the same time did increase repetitive thought?

  3. I don’t think you can separate the two, or even oppose them to one another (creative vs repetitive thought), as I think the two are highly interconnected: existing (social) values are repeated, but as one has a ‘unique’ framework too (cultural studies), several layers are in contact with each other. But the idea of the Memex, as Bush proposes, does indeed give more space to humankind to ‘personalize’ the search. As there are a number of items to choose from, this implies it is not creative (as you will follow predetermined paths, even though there are countless variations). Yet, the interaction with one’s ‘unique framework’ would already create a ‘creative thought’. Have I ever had an experience in which creative thought was excluded, but repetitive thought was increased? I think I’ve always experienced both, sometimes the one more explicitly there than the other. We learn to think like communication/media studies scientists, therefore performing in a repetitive sphere. But I think there’s always a personal element to it, even if you are indoctrinated. You can’t exclude association.

  4. It is interesting to observe how the question was inverted (and I would have to say that Karin indicated a significant distinction between memory and intelligence). Yet the resurrected question enters another dangerous realm – thought. 🙂

    To answer it briefly, yes. But, I guess, c’est la vie. In respect to creative and repetitive thought – the two are inextricable, as Bernadette points out. Or to quote Deleuze&Guattari, ‘many people have a tree growing in their heads, but the brain itself is much more a grass than a tree.’ (D&G, A Thousand Plateaus, 2008: 17) Thought, like grass, is in a constant flight. See my note on Kittler for more grass 🙂

  5. For an insightful paper on the relation between Bush’s text and the ‘invention’ of the Internet and hypertext, see Oinas-Kukkonen, “From Bush to Engelbart: ‘Slowly, Some
    Little Bells Were Ringing’”, http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=4287215&isnumber=4287209

  6. If anybody is curious, there is a compelling presentation by Engelbart http://sloan.stanford.edu/MouseSite/1968Demo.html where he presented computer mouse. It is fascinating to watch this after 40 years.

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