Thoughts on As We May Think

For Applications class, we were required to read two articles from the New Media Reader and post a comment in the Applications blog for each article. I picked As We May Think by Vannevar Bush (published 1945) and From Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework by Douglas Engelbart (published 1962). Below is my comment on As We May Think. My comment for Augmenting Human Intellect will be in the next post. 

Many writings have referred to this seminal article by Vannevar Bush over the years, that I’ve came across parts and pieces many times, but have never read the full thing. I was first astonished by the accessibility of the article. Unlike the writings that have since used it as reference, Bush’s piece is clear and direct, devoid of unnecessary technical jargons and academic lingo. Aside from the content, I think this directness may have been part of the reason that the article had made such a big impact to people of different disciplines.

The content of the article flows between Bush’s vast knowledge and experience in the science and technology and his imaginative speculations for the future. Some of the issues of his time in the 1940s, when it came to computers and media, evolved around the increase of information (Bush was primarily thinking of research) and lack of technology to intuitively search and index records and lack of computers to take care of repetitive complex logical problems. Today, we have much more advanced and powerful computers that not only do complex arithmetic but can also learn from aggregated human decision making. We have the Internet with Google search, hyperlinks, and Wikipedia, where we can easily find useful information. And we have online communities where ordinary netizens can collaborate with one another and even experts to address problems or even scientific research. But even with these advances and changes in technology and culture, the underlying problems that Bush mentioned still persists, namely moving from an information explosion to a knowledge explosion.

The Memex is a well-known device from the article. It has been credited numerous times as the inspiration for personal computers and the Internet. It is a testimonial to Bush’s great mind, in the way that he was able to make the leap from what had existed to what is to come. The most interesting part for me, however, is that in the description of how the “operator of the future” would use the Memex, Bush imagined a highly idealized and conventional person. This operator use the Memex for the sole purpose of accumulating knowledge, finding insights, and getting at the truth. His (Bush refers to the operator as a he) mind is able to quickly make connections between different information and win arguments with his less innovative friends at dinner parties with the aid of this technology. What Bush probably couldn’t have foreseen was what people would actually use this technology for and that with the increase of access to retrieve, add, and edit information, how much noise would be produced that would have nothing to do with furthering our knowledge or understanding. As more people talk about machine learning, I can’t help but wonder, what about human learning? The speed in which machine learning has been enhancing has far exceeded the speed of human  learning enhancement. This is unfortunate because it means that no matter how advanced our technology may be, us humans will continue to make the same irreversible mistakes that would affect future generations.

In the last paragraph, Bush acknowledges that humans “may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good”, but he ends on a positive note nonetheless, stating that it would be unfortunate to lose hope in the application of science. To add to this, I think furthering human understanding and knowledge is not just the task of scientists and technologists. Much of progress in society came from the arts and humanities. To be optimistic, like Vannevar Bush, I think there will be more technically savvy artists, writers, and activists from diverse race, gender, and backgrounds emerging soon, as we grapple with the speed of technological advances and information explosion. Graduating from a program like ITP, we will have the privilege and responsibility to participate.