It is interesting to revisit Vannevar Bush’s 1945 publication in the Atlantic, As We May Think. I first read it when I started my work on my Master’s degree. It was presented as a foundational reading for the field of Information Science and I read it with wide-eyed amazement at Bush’s prescience. I later read a few works by U.C. Berkeley College of Information Professor Emeritus Michael Buckland which claimed that many of Bush’s ideas were in fact not Bush’s ideas. Many of the innovations were described 10 years earlier or even patented seven years earlier, when Bush began work on his own Memex, which was applied to cryptanalysis in the war effort. At the end of the war, Bush wrote As We May Think imagining ways in which the tool could be applied to peace-time efforts as the national industrial machine shifted from the production of guns to the production of butter.
I re-read As We May Think this time in light of the following rhetorical question posed by Douglas Engelbart (links to Youtube):
“If in your office, you as an intellectual worker, were supplied with a computer display backed up by a computer that was alive for you all day and was instantly responsive to every action you had, how much value could you derive from that?”
On a shelf at home, I have a copy of “The synthesis of some esters of P-carboxybenzamidine.” This is a doctoral thesis in pharmacology from the University of Minnesota. It is probably unremarkable to most people, but it is special to me because it was written by my grandfather in 1948 and this is his personal copy. I presume he wrote in on a typewriter and then it was mimeographed and bound. Like many dissertations of that period, it was much shorter in length than what is common today. The act of finding relevant literature, let alone typing and editing then was, as Bush described, much more laborious than it is today. I imagine my grandfather might have reacted after reading As We May Think, which was widely circulated while he was conducting his doctoral work. I assume his first reaction to it was similar to my own first reaction described above in the first paragraph of this post. How much value could he have derived from the tools that are at my disposal?
He probably would have spent less time in the physical confines of the library searching for literature, and spent more time in the lab, or at a computer with modeling software.
But there are a variety of other problems that we deal with.
The technologies described by Bush are not a panacea. Socio-economic and cultural factors, and entrenched behaviors in the academy and in scholarly communications are barriers to the utopian visions of Bush or Otlet. Disserations have a prescribed structure of chapters enforced by many administrators. Impact factors of academic journals, though possible to manipulate, are given substantial weight for consideration for promotion and tenure.
How much value I could possibly derive from a computer that was instantly responsive to every gesture I had would be quantified in part by a committee of my peers and by the provost who are all bound by certain traditions and by external factors like accreditation.