Where is it going to end?

Like “boxout11,” I think most of us suffer from chronic information overload. Bush thought “the record” was already getting to be so big by 1945 that “we can hardly consult it.” Now we have even more information becoming ever more easily accessible. Fitting all the world’s knowledge into a moving van was the next big thing back then, but now we can pretty much carry it in the palm of our hand, maybe even in the frame of our spectacles. Where is it going to end?

The consequence is just as Bush realized: the means we use to access information becomes ever more crucial. As he suggests on page 44, smart indexing–associational indexing–is the key. And although his solution of “trails” didn’t do much for me, the way he states the problem of how to consult/index large bodies of information called to mind Google’s success in figuring out a whole new approach to indexing and prioritizing information.

The other theme in this article that struck me was the distinction between the kinds of thinking we can delegate to machines (“essentially repetitive thought,” as Bush calls it) and the kind of thinking only humans can do (“mature thought”). A question we might discuss is whether the nature of and the line between those two kinds of thinking has changed since 1945. Now we live in an age of algorithms, is the first kind of thinking expanding and the second contracting? Maybe not. Bush’s conception of logic/repetitive thought actually fits well with some of the algorithms that influence our lives so much today: Netflix telling us what we want to watch; the New York Times telling us which articles we want to read; credit card companies giving better deals to those who use their cards to purchase carbon monoxide alarms than to those who pay for tattoos (true story!).

This also reminds me (and I promise this will be the last thing) of the changing technology of doing research in historical newspapers. First we had newspapers. Then we had microfilm, which made newspaper archives easier to store and consult. Then we had OCR, which allowed us to digitize whole runs of newspapers into keyword searchable format. And now we have topic modelling, which allows us to let our computers loose on huge bodies of digitized text, and ask them to flag the repeated themes and categories that occur most often and that therefore seem significant. (For a good explanation, see http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/29/of-monsters-men-and-topic-modeling/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0.) The historian (“mature thought”) still has a role to play (I have to say that!), but it seems to be diminishing. Where is it going to end?

One thought on “Where is it going to end?

  1. Wow. This really gets to the heart of one of the major tensions in the legacy of “As we may think.” I agree that the line between “repetitive” and “mature” thought is increasingly difficult to draw neatly. In fact it might look more ghostly than linear – like the historical trails of whaling ships mapped out by Ben Schmidt (thanks for letting me put in a plug for historians as well!): http://sappingattention.blogspot.com/2012/10/logbooks-and-long-history-of.html
    Where is it going to end? Good question. The advent of quantum computing promises to make the journey even more interesting and challenging in terms of how humans think and what they know. (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2164806,00.html)

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