“As We May Think” serves three purposes:
- as a call to peace in a post-war moment
- as a foundational document for information science
- and as a speculative design document for what computing’s future might be
- record / archive / information
- memex: “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.”
- trail: the lines of associative and creative thought recorded in the memex. Compare w/ later hypertext.
- Impetus: what are scientists going to do once WWII has stopped? Bush: “urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge” (ed. note).
- “Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals”: computational science establishes the informational record.
- Problem of methods: there’s just too much info and our methods are “totally inadequate.” Part of this issue is the problem of specialization and part the fact that everyone publishes too damn much stuff.
- We’ve gone from Leibniz to Babbage and only now in post-WWII are “machines with interchangeable parts” cheap and reliable (enough).
- Note Bush’s sense of wonder: “A spider web of metal, sealed in a thin glass container, a wire heated to brilliant glow, in short, the thermionic tube of radio sets, is made by the hundred million, tossed about in packages, plugged into sockets—and it works!”
- Note also the speculative design project he’s engaging in a part like “Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. . . .” re: photography.
- Compression: “Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.” Information compression is the overall goal: make the thing smaller but make it more accessible through technical means.
- “To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter.” Compare w/ Kittler’s later statements on the “last historical act of writing” in “There is No Software.”
- Weird gender moment re: Voder at World Fair: “A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech.” And the Stenotype: “A girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze.” Who computes? Why are these keys so sensuous?
- Bit by bit, Bush is building up a picture of the Memex. First the photography and compression in pt. 2; now I/O in pt. 3.
- Comparing human to machine writing/reading: “All this complication is needed because of the clumsy way in which we have learned to write figures.” Machine writing here solves the problem of human writing, which has developed in an inefficient manner.
- Shift in this section from “imagine” to “will”: the future being willed into shape.
IV / V
- Machines take over repetitive and detail, freeing humans for high-level abstraction and “creative” process.
- Logic: “Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine.”
- Logic helps the scholar with the work of selection. Bush is developing the model of a search engine.
- We can read “As We May Think” as a work of speculative fiction. Does its value increase because it essentially came to pass? What value do we accord this text as a prophetic instrument? What historical/material realities needed to exist to guarantee its outcome? Who gets to be a prophet, and how?
- Mechanization, discrete operation, labor: “At any rate, there are now some interesting combinations possible. One might, for example, speak to a microphone, in the manner described in connection with the speech controlled typewriter, and thus make his selections. It would certainly beat the usual file clerk.”
- “The real heart of the matter of selection” is “the artificiality of systems of indexing.” Machines have to repeat logical procession whereas humans can operate by association, which Bush claims we can’t reproduce, but can rather “learn from.” Machines can’t beat “flexibility,” but can win on “permanence and clarity.”
- What I’m most interested in re: memex is Bush’s insistence on how it blends into the furniture of everyday life: “Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.” (Connect to Mattern’s work on office furniture.)
VII / VIII
- The memex gains value inasmuch as the user “builds a trail” with it. (Connect to Bratton’s and Srnicek’s work on platforms.)
- “And his trails do not fade.” Permanence of recording the trails of human thought is the key, even moreso than initial information retrieval. “There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”
- Finishes with a biotechnical reverie: how can the memex respond directly to the human bioapparatus? This then takes on a moral/ethical dimension in a proto quantified self: “Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.”
Archive and Impact
- Remember: Bush headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development during WWII, so almost all R&D got vectored through him.
- Bush’s article goes on to inspire generations of computer scientists, but it’s worth thinking about the kind of speculation and design this essay engages, re: top-down, enmeshed in a WWII information society. Data proliferates and we need to figure out how to constrain its uses.