As We May Think

(Note: see the first post for background, context, and other information about this seminar)

Vannevar Bush (credit: Wikipedia)

The first essay is a piece written by scientist/researcher Dr. Vannevar Bush for The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, immediately following the conclusion of World War II, called “As We May Think”. (You can read on the Atlantic’s archives here.)

As a scientist myself, I read Bush’s essay as I might write it — in a way it’s a ‘wish list’ of technology that will help us collect more and better data. And technology that, in concept, should make our task of organizing and synthesizing information more efficient. With the end goal of producing better science.

For example, Bush discussed the state-of-the-art as of 1945 regarding photography and, while not quite saying it exactly, alludes to digital photography (emphasis mine):

A scene itself can be just as well looked over line by line by the photocell in this way as can a photograph of the scene. This whole apparatus constitutes a camera, with the added feature, which can be dispensed with if desired, of making its picture at a distance. It is slow, and the picture poor in detail. Still, it does give another process of dry photography, in which the picture is finished as soon as it is taken.

Bush also discusses the potential of having the whole of human knowledge reduced down to significantly smaller physical space:

The Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox.

And a nod to dictation software:

… will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record?

But Bush isn’t just predicting advances in tangible technology (hardware, software) — he also discusses potential changes in how we think about mathematical symbology. How me might have to translate that symbolism for the machine to operate correctly:

This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge.

Bush seems excited about the idea of massive amounts of data — I think most scientists do, the more data the better. But the age of ‘big data’ is leading to entire field of study focusing on data and meta-data. I rather like physicist Sean Carroll’s recent commentary in what he called ‘data fatigue’:

It’s the fetishization of data for its own sake that I find fatiguing.

That is, simply organizing massive amounts of data into a pretty visualization is nice, but if it doesn’t help us understand the phenomenon better, what good is it? This is an important question to keep in mind as we move forward in a time of increasing volumes of data. I suppose one could counter saying that the fact that all these network visualizations of complex systems haven’t led to improved fundamental understanding is important to know. But is that what the data specialists are saying?

Importantly, Bush also discusses, in a round-about way, the concept of a network — of having information calculated, stored, and transmitted via a centralized hub. But while his fictional ‘memex’ machine for individuals alludes to personal computer, it doesn’t combine this with a centralized network — Bush doesn’t really talk about access to information, but the storage of information itself.

More later.


p.s. A cultural aspect of this essay that struck me while reading was the use of “man”, “him”, “he”, etc. when discussing humankind in general, and also when referring to scientists as individuals. Correspondingly, Bush referred to stenographers and typists not just as female, but as “girls”. I realize we still have a ways to go with respect to gender inequities in society, but can you imagine if someone wrote a piece like this now for the Atlantic?

Image: Vannevar Bush portrait —


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