The Visions of “As We May Think”

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote “As We May Think” as a call for scientists to develop tools to better unitize the knowledge of the post-war era.  He envisions multiple new inventions to improve data collection and retrieval. Both shrinking the size of documents and the way they are stored and presented.  Many of his predictions on the future capabilities of technology turned out to come true.  However, it is interesting to consider how his writings may have been the inspiration behind the advances. He may have set the framework for what was to come.

Bush envisioned the Memex as a way to store, manage and access information efficiently.
Bush envisioned the Memex as a way to store, manage and access information efficiently.

Below are examples of inventions Bush invented and possible present day equivalents.  Bush’s main purpose for many of these inventions was to improve the way knowledge is collected and processed within sciences. He may have never considered many of the modern everyday uses of these technologies.

Portable Camera

Bush envisioned a small camera scientists could attach to their glasses or head for quick and hassle-free records of observations. He desired a quick and efficient method to gather any observations a scientist found to be significant. Today, Google Glass, or GoPro provides cameras similar to what Bush describes.  Google Glass and GoPro have found a wide range of applications outside the sciences like in areas of business, action sports and everyday life.

Dry Photography

Bush desired a quick method of photography that would allow the user to immediately view the photo, and avoid tedious development processes.  The compression of these photos and records would also lead to mass collections of data not possible at the time.  Microfilm was later developed  that allowed for large amounts of literature to be stored on small pieces of film. He wanted a way to store “millions of volumes compressed at the end of a desk.” Digital storage and digital photography have taken Bush’s ideas and created “permanent”, immediate and inanimate methods of storing data, literature and research in ways more efficient than Bush could have predicted.

Microfilm was seen as a way to compress information and allow easier access to greater volumes of data
Microfilm was seen as a way to compress information and allow easier access to greater volumes of data

Memex

Bush describes a machine in the form of a desk in which “an individual stores his books, records and communications, mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” Information would be fed into the Memex by keyboard and microfilm.  In a way, smartphones can be seen as present-day Memex machines.  Any research or literature needed can be stored on a phone and easily accessed whenever needed. Overtime, the type of data and information that can be stored evolved from physical film to digital information transmitted through the internet.

Many of Bush’s visions seem simple to the present day reader, however he became one of the first to outline the possibilities and applications of technology that became the foundation for future developments that we now take for granted.

Image Sources: Microfilm, Memex

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