As He Did Think

I finally read Vannevar Bush’s essay As We May Think for the first time this week. For something written in 1945, it’s amazing; for that matter, if it had been written in 1975, it would have been just as amazing for its uncanny predictive power. He outlines something very close to the modern digital era. If you haven’t read it, you should.

Of course, it’s off on many details, comically so in some cases. His discussion of “dry photography” and the process of distributing books in microfilm form remind me of the pneumatic tubes of Brazil. With transistors still two years out, I guess “thermionic tubes” were the right technology to talk about; that they’re now used only by die-hard audiofiles might surprise him.

Where Bush falls short about technology is in not predicting the pervasiveness and connectedness that we have. Yes, scientists and researchers use modern day “Memexes,” but so do people looking for people, movies, restaurants, travel, trivia, porn, and a million other topics. The information in our memexes is distributed among a wider array of machines, all connected, giving a much larger field of information available to everyone. We also use the internet for forms of communication — blogs might have been predictable but eBay probably wasn’t — that I don’t think Bush envisioned.

Bush was better on technology than social trends. He didn’t foresee shifts in gender roles; these days, scientists type for themselves and “a whole roomful of girls armed with simple key board punches” are not transcribing the thoughts of great men. He predicted that books would be the unit of transfer, where the web “page” model is much finer grained. That almost all of us are still typing, rather than speaking for human- or machine-transcription, is an artifact of something else that I think is hard to predict: when we’ll adapt machines to our behavior and when we’ll adapt our behavior to what machines do easily.

But all that’s incidental to the astounding accomplishments of prediction in this essay. Search engines are trying to deliver on the potential of the Memex and he described information retrieval better than most people can today. The combination is digital photography and “radio” (or, as we think of it, “wireless”) is probably ahead of where he predicted and book digitization is almost there. His description of browsing and navigation make an interface of windows, scrollbars, and a pointing device (though not a “lever”) seem almost obvious.

(Props to The Atlantic for being true to the spirit of the essay by making it easily accessible.)