An Ancient Geek: Consider a device…

Vannevar Bush was perhaps the father of the Internet

Vannevar Bush was an ancient geek who concieved of the memex device

In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote:

Consider a future 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.

I first read his article in 1998 in the (digital) archive of The Atlantic Monthly and found it quite inspiring. I wrote an article about it on my old (web 1.0) website. The Dreamtime of the Internet

In his original essay, Bush posits some interesting, and in hindsight, quaint ideas:

Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.

I’m glad I don’t have to wear a lump on my forehead, but can use my ultra-cool hand held device, the smartphone, to take pictures, but much of his vision has come to pass: dry photography – no need for chemicals, and lenses that auto focus.

You can read his original article As We May Think courtesy of your memex device.

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3 Responses to An Ancient Geek: Consider a device…

  1. Vanessa says:

    “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” As this quote and your post highlights, if you dismiss the future with reflection of the past, the true successes of the past become diminished.Vannevar Bush, as you have noted, was an extremely forward thinking scientist, that was, as highlighted in both your post and his article “As We May Think”, limited by the technologies that preceded him. If looking solely from the point of technologic development up until microfilm, his ideas may seen far fetched and even fantastical,however looking from the perspective of the 21st century where what was previously considered impossible possible, we see an extremely innovative scientist whose ideas have not filled the world with fantastical fiction, but necessary innovations. As you have stated and I confirmed, the success of Bush’s ideas cannot be fully appreciated if looking at them in comparison to the existing innovations that were in place while he was creating.Also if looking at the Memex from the perspective of history alone, the mere irony of reading his article on the internet on a personal computer would be gone, and I think this modern application of the hypothetical ideas he explores in his essay are a better explanation of why we should view his work, and any work at that, from a modern perspective than by using words alone. To highlight the irony, while you read the following excerpts from his original article below, remember that while he was transposing those very statements onto paper, the concept of a personal computer with means of mass communication with which man’s knowledge could be inputted, preserved and shared (as your post has efficiently likened to the internet) was not possible.“Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual…Publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships…But there are signs of a change as new and powerful instrumentalities come into use.”Overall from what I can see we both agree that as a thesis to these posts, we agree with the reciprocated statment of the orginal blog question – Vannevar Bush’s vision of the Memex should be based on the power and versatility of digital computer technology developed after 1945 rather than from the historical perspective of microfilm technology developed prior to 1945.

    • Amanda says:

      I realize that I am commenting on my own post, but I am the only person who wrote on the Memex. One aspect of Bush’s writing that I found most striking is his inability to make the mental leap from analog to digital when imagining the potential benefits of computer science. It seems to me that an individual on the cutting edge of computer science would be able to foresee this transition. When he described the evolution of film he spoke of the possibility of a camera with instantaneous reproduction(Polaroid), but completely failed to see that the process could be digitized. When he described the Memex he completely failed to see that microfilm could be broken down to binary. Because of this his visions of the future, no matter how much grandeur they had, are antiquated by today’s standards.This really forces me to ask myself, what processes are we using today that twenty year old students will laugh at in the future?’ This makes me hesitant to criticize Bush for his lack of fore vision, because I am likely susceptible to the same problem.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful and insightful comments. I also feel that we suffer restraints when imagining the future. When I wrote my first article about Vannevar Bush, I was looking forward to the time I could hold the Internet in my hand. Now I can, but the device is far superior to the one I imagined. The device is slim, the monitor is the size of the device itself and the functions surpass simply browsing the web and communications.

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