A Review of Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think”

This article, written in July of 1945, “calls for a new relationship between the thinking man and the sum of our knowledge”(1).  In the late 1940’s, physicists whose prior objectives were rooted in World War II had to viciously veer focus once peace settlements were reached.  With their hands suddenly free, their efforts could now be aimed towards the betterment of human life, rather than the destruction. This article reflects on the benefits scientific development has had on the humanity. These advancements have, in a respect, released man “from the bondage of bare existence” (2), as they have improved mental and physical health and facilitated communication amongst the masses.  However, the old methods of consolidating research have become inadequate due to the proliferation of knowledge.  In response, Bush calls upon a means to store results so that the “truly significant attainments” (2) stemming from years of study won’t get “lost in the mass of the inconsequential” (2).  If to solve the problems plaguing the present, one must look to the past.  Man has constructed “a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records” (13).  There are countless disconnected conclusions that, if organized, great progress could result. This is not to say, that progress hasn’t already been made, however.  Bush examines the inventions of the past, noting that we are already capable of things once thought impossible.  In the first half of the twentieth century, scientist had already produced “cheap complex devices of great reliability” (3), with regard to the advancements in photography and microfilm.  However, this only the beginning, he predicts.  The machines yet to come will be far more versatile.  Prolific scientists thread together a tapestry of possibilities, marking a new event in human history.  In spite of this, Bush illustrates where he feels further progress can be made.  With developments in microfilm, he believes “the Encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox” (5). However, compression, although economical, is useless if the information is not consulted.  Once again, Bush stresses the significance of specialization and consolidation, as “man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge” (8).   The results of research must be available for distribution, as the mass production and reproduction of information fuels further development in the scientific field.  Thus, “specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress and the effort to bridge between disciplines” (2).  In response to this need, Bush presents his design for the Memex, which appears to be early blueprints of a computer. It is a device, he explains, wherein one can “store all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility” (10). It will be far more reliable than “any human operator and a thousand times faster” (2). Furthermore, the Memex will be capable of associative reasoning, something innate to the human mind.  As scientists have adapted a logical process in which to examine the world, these machines will also be able to “manipulate the premises in accordance with formal logic” (7).  As he delves into greater detail about the intricacies of this machine, it grows increasingly difficult to discern whether he regards such a device as a tool, or as a being.  Despite the fact that he refers to the design as an instrument and “mechanical aid” (2), he has the tendency to personify it.  For instance, he states that the “machines will have enormous appetites” (6).  Moreover, the “adoption” (9) of this “human mechanism” (12) will facilitate life, as it will have the faculty of logical reasoning.  This sets the stage for the development of an unhealthy dependency between mankind and the machine, perhaps one, which at the turn of the century, society gradually begins to exhibit.

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