As we may think

Vannevar Bush
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Read: 07 October 2020

Atlantic Monthly 176
Pages 101-108

This frequently referred to article was published just after the end of the 2nd World War by Vannevar Bush (the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development). It is a swords-to-ploughshares best known for the Memex concept that influenced creators of hypertext, etc.

In an article this old, it is hard to know whether to call the ideas in this article “predictions”, “inventions”, “assumptions” or what. Whatever they are, some of the ideas are

  • Cameras will get smaller, wet photography will give way to dry photography (this sounds like Polaroid), and that will give way to electronic cameras.

  • Data storage on microfilm will enable the Encyclopedia Brittanica to fit in a matchbox, cost a nickel and be mailed anywhere for one cent.

  • The data for future encyclopedias will be entered using voice recognition and in head-mounted cameras (this sounds like Google Glass) that you can use hands-free as you do your work.

  • Arithmetic machines (computers) will get very fast and be capable of calculus and symbolic logic.

    Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students’ souls.

  • Data retrieval (from the large microfilm store), using voice recognition.

  • The memex: a personal computer with a large memory, screens, scanners that can exchange data with other memexes.

    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.

    It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

    … And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent platen. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed.

  • Bidirectional links between data items that form annotated “trails”, and profesional “trail blazers” who hunt through data sources creating trails. (Trails are also created by individuals, physicians, historians, etc.)

  • Communication with the memex via brain waves both as input and output.

Written in 1945. Wow!