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As We May Think

Quick note:
The tech terminology at first confused me, and if you are like me the following list might help you. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong:

  • Photocells are light sensors. Advanced versions of these are in your smartphone and digital cameras, behind the lens.
  • Thermionic tubes = vacuum tubes. Incandescent light bulbs are a type of these. Along with relays, these were among the essential components of an electric circuit until transistors became popular.
  • Cathode ray tubes = CRT (old fat screens)

The article was published in a time where the industrialization we discussed regarding last week’s readings is quite in its adult phase; “the humble typewriter, or the movie camera, or the automobile” are, rather than new innovations, things that “perform reliably.” In a war-winning United States, not without the help of mobilized scientists, Bush proposes a vision of using technology to deal with the problem of ever-increasing human knowledge that “extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” He is anticipating computers to be used in the information age, Thomas P. Hughes (2005) describes (p. 97). His picture of the “memex”, which is essentially a microfilm browser with editing and sharing functions, seems a bit different from what computers actually became- but it was 1945, and digital computing was not really a thing. What is impressive is his insights on how information should be dealt with.

Using the example of Mendel’s work not reaching potentially significant contemporary readers, Bush defines the problem faced by humans as the inability for the actual use of (scientific) knowledge to keep pace with the speed that its records expand. According to him, three aspects could use some improvement and will do so regarding scientific records: creation of new ones, storage and retrieval.

Instead of trying to guess what the next new technology will be, Bush describes in detail how the current technology could develop and be used for the above goals. Storage will be faster, easier, cheaper and smaller. Note that he emphasizes that “[c]ompression is important … when it comes to costs.” With a little stretch, his idea that smaller size will lead to massive reproduction is in a way analogous to the shrinking space of railway times leading to the access to a much larger geographical space.

Creating new records could also become easier, through such developments as speech recognition and automated input. The automation of repetitive processes that are currently limited to arithmetic equations would extend to higher-level symbolic logics and advanced data analysis. And the access to specific data, which Bush calls selection, also could be much faster if we applied the selection process of, say, the telephone switching system and improved it using electronics. So the storage, input and retrieval of knowledge would all become faster and allow for a much larger quantity.

Then Bush pictures a device, “memex”, that embodies the above improvements along with an additional crucial idea, association. Unlike the current indexing systems, which are mostly alphabetical or numerical categorization, a new system would enable the direct connection of two or more different pieces of information; allowing for the association between thoughts which is how the human mind works, hence the title of the article. His example of the Turkish bow researcher describes knowledge pieces that are interconnectible via a code space separate from the content and allow long-term storage, commenting/editing/creating from the user’s part, browsing, copying and sharing. This idea is viewed as the initial concept of hypertext– one of the main structures of internet (Landow, 2006, p.11)

His “new forms of encyclopedias” filled with “a mesh of associative trails” incredibly seem to be referring to Wikipedia. He expresses the hope that humankind would be able to stand on the shoulder of giants and go beyond its application of control over the environment and war against each other, in order to “grow in the wisdom of race experience.”

The article portrays several ideas that we can associate with current things: the hypertext and links, of course, but also here and there we find mentions of potential Google Glass, Siri and big data analysis. Just before the end of the article, we can also peep at Bush’s version of cyborg future, where information could be transmitted to and from the brain directly using electric signals rather than being translated to sensory phenomena; this sounds like his sci-fi imagination, which he has been suppressing throughout the article, finally going off… But in a sense this also has been realized: not exactly (well, not yet) by connecting wires to the nervous system, but by the vast network of computers and the digitization of all information.

  • It is worth noting his limited use of female words, only associated with certain jobs: stenotypist, typist, “simple key board punches” operators, and (not specified but probably) file clerk. This seems almost like a repeat of something that happened in Marx’s era: as machines enter the labor space, so do women- but not on equal terms. A further interesting point is that as Wendy Chun (2004) points out, computers in early 20C referred to human operators of the machines, mostly young women; “they were also considered to be better, more conscientious computers, presumably because they were better at repetitious, clerical tasks” (p. 33).
  • Bush was administrator for the wartime U.S. military R&D, which I can’t imagine had no influence on his ideas regarding the inefficiently increasing knowledge. The initial version of internet was funded by the U.S. department of defense. The steam engine came out of an industrial need, like a lot of innovations happening in the tech industry today. Although this might be a rough statement, I feel not too much off target by arguing that a lot of initiative regarding technological change comes from either the military or the industry. What are the implications here? How relevant are the sources of technological changes?
  • Are we better off with the internet? I mean, I love the internet. But more globally, what would be the implications? While there are claims that the hypertext as a system that allows for easier participation in creative activities and dissolves the boundaries between author and reader, it “has the potential … to be a democratic or multicentered system” (Landow, 2006, p. 343), last class we also talked about how some corporations are exploiting that type of collaborative and/or voluntary work that the medium enables us to do. Is the capital intercepting the ‘revolutionary potential’ and use it for profit?
  • Are we any wiser? To be more specific, has our ability to process information caught up with the ever-increasing rate of knowledge production? Or are we being disoriented by the influx of information? In the case of the latter, is it a transitional thing, just as the coach travelers were disoriented by the speed of the railway?

Also, this video featuring Douglas Engelbart, who was inspired by Bush, might be interesting to watch alongside the article. It is perhaps most famous for the use of a computer mouse, but it also introduces important features of computers that now seem so natural, including the hypertext.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mother_of_All_Demos

Citations:

Bush, V. (1945, July). As We May Think. The Atlantic. Retrieved from http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1945/07/as-we-may-think/303881/

Chun, W. H. K. (2004). On software, or the persistence of visual knowledge. Grey Room, 18, 26–51.

Hughes, T. P. (2005). Human-Built World: How to Think about Technology and Culture. University of Chicago Press.

Landow, G. P. (2006). Hypertext 3.0: Critical Theory and New Media in an Era of Globalization. JHU Press.

5 thoughts on “As We May Think

  1. Joe Melendez

    “has our ability to process information caught up with the ever-increasing rate of knowledge production?”

    I would say no since an underlying product of scientific research is always more questions. Also we need to account for the scale of the universe, both at the quantum and cosmic scales. There is so much data and information for us to still collect and analyze that our computer scientists will be well employed until they are replaced by machines better than them.

    1. tperson

      I agree, that there is at this point so much data that we are bombarded with in a 24 hour period. The overwhelming consensus from the perspective of both health and psychology is that we have become a society that is more stressed and depressed than functional.
      I think that only time will tell whether or not we will evolve to keep pace with the increasing demands that so much input places on our ability to process. For now I think we are in a bind of our own making.

  2. Teresa Ober

    In reading both the original article and your provocation and comments, I was surprised by some of the prescient descriptions of the memex, or collective memory system, as told by Bush (1945). His description of new forms encylopedias (i.e., Wikipedia), linkages and indices between concepts and ideas (i.e., hyperlinks) seemed to elicit such a strong sense of familiarity that barely detected my own hindsight bias. Though it seems that the description of a collective knowledge base would be a logical conceptual forerunner of the internet, one thing seemed to be missing is the description of users of knowledge base so described. While the need for such a knowledge system for practitioners such as patent attorneys, physicians, chemists, and historians is carefully justified, it remains unclear to me whether the author would have intended for such a knowledge system to be open and accessible to the general public for non-labor purposes. After reading this article and Rosenzweig (1998), I am left with the impression that idea of the openness of the world wide web is a more recent innovation than that of the technology required to make it feasible. In response to your last provocation, I think it’s possible that the forerunners of the modern day internet, especially those such as Bush who seemed to endorse the idea of a shared knowledge base for the sake of knowledge-seeking and truth, would have been horrified to see what a tangled mess of good/useful and bad/wrong information it can be at times. There may be some merit still in older forms of knowledge-seeking, such as the quietude of printed material, but I do think that we can train ourselves to attend to relevant incoming information and to know what is most essential and most likely to be true.

  3. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

    Achim,

    Thanks for such a thorough approach to the Vannevar Bush–I really appreciated how you brought in the context of the article. Beyond the pleasurable uncanniness that comes from reading or observing predicts of the future that have in fact been realized, the connection between military, government, and infrastructure is both a sinister and essential feature of the piece–and of technology at large, I feel.

    I’d like to address your observation on the frequent interrelatedness of technological change and military priorities, and the ensuing question of what this implies and whether the source of technological development matters. Military or government initiatives and defense budgeting account for an enormous amount of technological innovation and technological application, and it stands that if the military develops the technology, to some extent what it deems valuable is inherently embedded.

    I think of GIS, which is heavily implicated in military use and bound in proprietary platforms. In fact, our widespread use of GIS is made possible by the space race, essentially, which ultimately resulted in having satellites that surround the earth to transmit data on geolocation. Today, GIS and maps hold great interest for military and government initiatives, and any developments in accuracy for GIS are in no small part so drones can more effectively target at great distances. Not to mention that the positivism, concrete mapping of physical space with little regard to lived experience within its parameters, and nationalist tendencies of map-making are built into our current concept of geography, although maps are quite old, and I’m speaking with special regard to our current understanding of GIS in the digital age. It doesn’t seem unlikely that these features are heightened in our current era because of the amount of military and government investment that digital GIS technologies contain.

  4. Sakina Laksimi Morrow

    I wasn’t able to totally follow the article, but I was able to understand the basic premise of it.
    This reminded me of Marshall McLuhan’s work on technology/medium. The following quote on the article especially speak well to McLuhan’s conception of technology (or media) as an extension of some “human faculty”; that the tools that we use are extensions of our bodies (eye, ear, foot etc). However, when proportions change, the dynamics change, and “man” changes.

    “Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He 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. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.”

    In the same way that the car, in the McLuhan sense, is an extension of the foot, so the technologies presented by Dr. Bush would be extensions of the brain (or certain components of it). But these technologies do not merely enhance our natural activity (remembering/storage-retrieval) but totally change the way in which it functions. The outcome is not foreseeable, in the same way that the invention of the car changed the nature of social organization.

    I don’t know if this answered anything but I’ve included a video that may interest some of you:

    The Medium is the Massage – Marshall McLuhan (Full):

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