Vannevar Bush: I forgot he predicted Google and Wikipedia!

Did you ever have the experience of rereading something that you read a long time ago and say to yourself, "Wow -- this is so much better than I realized!"?  I'm preparing for a speech later today and I just had that experience with Vannevar Bush's 1945 Atlantic Monthy article, "As We May Think". vannevar-bush-1-sized

Many people know this article for its concept of the "memex" -- a machine that could store and retrieve all of human knowledge, and those same folks also note how prescient Bush was.  What I had not realized in my previous quick read of this article many years ago, was that Bush nailed the idea of associative memory as being a key factor in making vast quantities of information accessible.

Fresh off the Manhattan bomb building project Bush was both impressed and terrified by the growth and power of human knowledge.  In discussing the improving possibilities of storage he notes that people will become overwhelmed, and only through focus and access will such a storehouse be useful.  He beautifully says, "Selection is the stone adze in the hands of the cabinet maker."

Not only does he eloquently note this vital role of selection, but he anticipates the importance of new forms of indexing -- especially association.

Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

In these few words he anticipates Google, and many of the search engines of today.  He did not "see" the network, and imagined all these capabilities in an individual's machine.  Imagine what he could have conceived of if he understood page ranks.

Moreover, he does understand that knowledge will become self organized and differentiated by categories.

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. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.

Again, this sounds a lot like Wikipedia.  Not bad for 1945.

There are many quaint parts to the article.  Bush, always the engineer, cannot refrain from thinking about how the storage device (super small microfiche and other analog concepts) might work.  Some of his language is dated, as he talks about rooms of "girls" doing data entry.  But, the article is a work of genius, and worth another look if you have not read it for a while.  The other thing it brings up in my mind is, how well are we seeing the implications of our current technologies 60 years down the road?

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