Thoughts on Vannevar Bush’s essay, “As We May Think“
“Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.”
Bush saw the 20th century’s exponential explosion of information and the progress it could bring. His mental model could only imagine a walnut-sized-camera strapped to a scientist’s head, and a desk-sized “memex” filled with microfilm, but he absolutely saw the implications of commoditizing the ability to create and publish data, and the need to be able to organize–not just access–all that data in new ways.
Just for attending this seminar, we were all handed a memex called an iPad, much smaller than a desk — and its camera is smaller than a walnut, too. Most of us likely walked into the room with an even smaller smartphone memex in our pockets.
But what to do with all this information?
Author and guerrilla-ontologist Robert Anton Wilson posited the “Jumping Jesus Phenomenon” of the rate of information doubling. If the sum of human knowledge up to 1 AD is considered a unit of measure (“1 jesus”), then the time it took humanity to reach 2 jesus was much less — 1,500 years instead of 40,000 years. Then the time it took to reach 4 jesus was even less, and so on to the point where information doubles every century, every decade, every year, every month, every day, ever hour, minute, second, nano second. Wilson’s rough calculations said 2012 would be when information began doubling every nanosecond — and maybe he was right. A quick Google search yields a 2013 article claiming “a full 90 percent of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years.”
To put it another way, the file size for the complete works of Shakespeare is about 5 megabytes — give or take the same size as the MP3 file of a 3-minute pop song. Or a few seconds of HD video. And “way back” in 2010, just Twitter alone was generating 8 Terabytes of data daily.
Which leads, for me, to the larger point of Bush’s essay — and, I think, to the point of this seminar’s course material and the diversity of its participants — how do we make use of all this information? How do we synthesize meaningful discoveries across academic and professional disciplines? How do libraries (and librarians!) evolve to be guides to meaningful content, now that meaningful content is not just in the stacks. Maybe it’s walnut-camera-quaint of me, but I don’t think internet search engines know how to be that guide, either. But given that those search engines are most people’s primary librarians, how do we teach information literacy to students, to ourselves?
I very much liked Bush’s warning against the dangers of specialization: “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.” It is several sections later when he ties this thought to mathematicians, but I think it also applies to many people in this information age:
A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.
This explosion of information requires people with intuitive judgement to find meaningful connections in data. This has long been a beauty of the arts, of finding insight into the human condition, but I’d like to hope it is a coming beauty of many parts of life in this information age. There are entire careers and academic disciplines created in the wonders of the last 70 years since Bush wrote this essay. Imagine what’s coming when we see past our own currently favored disciplines, favored tools, favored ways of thinking. … “one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best.”