“As We May Think”

By Deane Barker on November 7, 2014

I’ve become quite interested in Internet history lately, and I’ve run across Vannevar Bush‘s name multiple times. He was a American scientist, quite active during Word War II, and is historically known for expounding on an idea he had for a device called the “memex,” which was, in some ways, a precursor to the web itself.  (Tim Berners-Lee, in fact, has cited Bush’s work as foundational to his own work.)

Bush was vexed by the the difficulty in recording knowledge and — more importantly — recalling it, in the 1940s.  The idea of massive bound volumes frustrated him, because he was convinced that the human mind just didn’t work that way. He expounded on this in a famous 1945 essay published in The Atlantic entitled As We May Think:

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.
Linear storage was a problem, not a solution. Bush wanted to store information the way the human mind worked:
The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain.
To this end, he elaborated on his idea of the memex:
A memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory. […] It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. […] All this is conventional, except for the projection forward of present-day mechanisms and gadgetry. It affords an immediate step, however, to associative indexing, the basic idea of which is a provision whereby any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.
That last bit is essentially the basis of hypertext.

The entire essay is worth reading. It’s so celebrated in Internet history, in fact, that a symposium was held in 1995 in honor of its 50th anniversary. In 2005, the 65th anniversary was celebrated with a panel discussion at the ACM Hypertext and Hypermedia conference (video here).

A lot of the first half is Bush discussing various photographic technologies and their possibilities for recording knowledge (he gets very close to inventing Google Glass at one point).  The bit about human thought processes and the memex comes at the very end.


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