Science  /  Annotation

The Atlantic Writers Project: Vannevar Bush

A contemporary Atlantic writer reflects on one of the voices from the magazine's archives who helped shape the publication—and the nation.

Bush’s influence on computer technology was cemented long before “As We May Think.” But the 1945 Atlantic essay delved deeper into a lesson Bush considered—or at least, hoped to retrospectively justify as—the most important accomplishment of his military-industrial career: Sharing information between people and among organizations can drive rapid innovation.

“As We May Think” imagines a spectacular future along those lines—one in which all knowledge might be connected to any other knowledge, and retrieved on a moment’s notice. And to which new knowledge might be easily added, too, using tools that would simplify and automate recording and storage. Bush never really got over his love of analog, electrical, and mechanical devices, and his vision seems positively steampunk from today’s perspective: a walnut-sized forehead camera with a shutter cord running down a man’s sleeve to his palm; a “supersecretary” that transforms sound waves into typewriter-key presses; sheafs of microfilm comprising billions of books, perhaps all human knowledge, as if stacked up inside a moving van.

At the center of it all, Bush imagined a “mechanized private file and library.” He called this device a “memex,” and imagined that it would house all of an individual’s books, records, and communications. Today, that notion probably conjures the image of a laptop or smartphone. But Bush conceived of the memex as a piece of furniture—“an ordinary desk.” The memex user would purchase or borrow materials on microfilm, which would be projected on screens inset atop the desk’s surface. More than one book or other source could be seen at once, and the user could draw connections between the knowledge they contained—by literally drawing connections via a stylus (or by means of the desk’s mechanical buttons and levers). The connections themselves became knowledge in the process, sortable for later retrieval, archival, or sharing.

Bush named this process of knowledge construction “trail building,” a pretty obvious precursor to later spatial metaphors of digital knowledge: the information superhighway, surfing the web. He even foresaw information technology as the business-process facilitator it very much became; one of his examples amounts to an early take on a stock-, inventory-, and financials-management system for a department store.