As We May Think

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As We May Think is an essay by Vannevar Bush, first published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945, and republished again as an abridged version in September 1945 — therefore, before and after the U.S. nuclear attacks on Japan. Bush expresses his concern for the direction of scientific efforts towards destruction, rather than understanding, and explicates a desire for a sort of collective memory machine with his concept of the memex that would make knowledge more accessible, believing that it would help fix these problems. Through this machine, Bush hoped to transform an information explosion into a knowledge explosion.[1]


Concept creation

The article was a reworked and expanded version of Bush's 1939 essay Mechanization and the Record. Here, he described a machine that would combine lower level technologies to achieve a higher level of organized knowledge (like human memory processes). Shortly after the publication of this essay, Bush coined the term "memex" in a letter written to the editor of Fortune magazine.[2] That letter became the body of "As We May Think," adding only an introduction and conclusion. As described, Bush's memex was based on what was thought, at the time, to be advanced technology of the future: ultra high resolution microfilm reels, coupled to multiple screen viewers and cameras, by electromechanical controls. The memex, in essence, reflects a library of collective knowledge stored in a piece of machinery described in his essay as "a piece of furniture."[3] The Atlantic Monthly publication of Bush's article was followed, in the September 10, 1945 issue of Life magazine, by a reprint that showed illustrations of the proposed memex desk and automatic typewriter. (Coincidentally, the same issue of Life contained aerial photos of Hiroshima after the dropping of the atomic bomb, a project Bush was instrumental in starting).

Concept realization

As We May Think predicted (to some extent) many kinds of technology invented after its publication, including hypertext, personal computers, the Internet, the World Wide Web, speech recognition, and online encyclopedias such as Wikipedia: "Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified."[3] Bush envisioned the ability to retrieve several articles or pictures on one screen, with the possibility of writing comments that could be stored and recalled together. He believed people would create links between related articles, thus mapping the thought process and path of each user and saving it for others to experience. Wikipedia is one example of how this vision has been realized, allowing users to link words to other related topics, while browser user history maps the trails of the various possible paths of interaction. Bush's article also lay the foundation for new media. Doug Engelbart came across the essay shortly after its publication, and keeping the memex in mind, he "began work that would eventually result in the invention of the mouse, the word processor, the hyperlink and concepts of new media for which these groundbreaking inventions were merely enabling technologies." [1]

At the same time, a reader now will be surprised how little some technologies have actually advanced since As We May Think was published during 1945. It is true that, for instance, storage has greatly surpassed the level imagined by Vannevar Bush, who wrote: "The Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk".[3] However, technologies such as speech recognition and associative ways of indexing information are largely underdeveloped and most individuals are interacting with computers in non-natural ways, adapting to technology instead of having technology adapt to users. Automated speech recognition was possible at that time already[citation needed], but is still rarely used to type texts or operate computers. Indexing of information at the time is described by Bush as being artificial: "When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically, and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used." [3] This description resembles popular file systems of modern computer operating systems (FAT, NTFS, ext3 when used without hardlinks and symlinks, etc.), which do not easily enable associative indexing as imagined by Bush.

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Wardrip-Fruin, Noah and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003 ISBN 0-262-23227-8
  2. Nyce, James M. & Kahn, Paul. From Memex to Hypertext - Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. Academic Press, Inc. 1991
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 Bush, Vannevar. "As We May Think." The Atlantic Monthly. July 1945. Reprinted in Life magazine September 10, 1945.

External links

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