When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. - Hunter S. Thompson

30 July 2005

As We May Think: Vannevar Bush (The Atlantic Online)

This July is the 60th anniversary of the publication, in The Atlantic, of Dr. Vannevar Bush's hugely influential article, "As We May Think."

As World War II was drawing to a close, Dr. Bush laid out an agenda for, and made some predictions about, the new disciplines of computing and information management that, in hindsight, look almost prophetic.

Among other things, he predicted--in 1945!--a system of managing information, the "memex," (presumably for "memory extender,") which sounds a hell of a lot like a personal computer running a standard set of productivity applications and a Web browser:
Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a 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.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely...
1945, y'all.

I think there's a case to be made, and I'm only half-kidding, that Dr. Bush was actually a time-traveller, or a visitor from another planet.

It's a wonderful article.

I wonder what Dr. Bush would say if he could see one of us sitting in a WiFi-hotspot coffee shop with a nothing-special $1000 laptop (estimated cost in 1945 dollars: less than $100, maybe as little as $50 or so) wirelessly connected to the whole world, Googling for information as we sip our soy lattes.

Other than "what the hell is a soy latte?"

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