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TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: Vannvar Bush…

May 5th, 2003 · No Comments

Write Randall Packer and Ken Jordan in their introduction to Vannevar Bushs paper in their book Multimedia: From Wagner to Reality:

Vannevar Bush rose to prominence during World War II as chief scientific advisor to Franklin Roosevelt and director of the governments Office of Scientific Research and Development, where he supervised the research that led to the creation of the atomic bomb and other military technologies. By orchestrating this ambitious collaboration between the military, scientific, and academic communities, Bush is considered the founder of what came to be known as the military-industrial complex. His contribution to the evolution of the computer ranges far and wide: from the invention in 1930 of the Differential Analyzer, one of the first automatic electronic computers, to his concept of the memex, the prototypical hypermedia machine.

Adds Adam Brates in his book Technomanifestos: Visions from the Information Revolutionaries:

Bushs immense administrative burden the daily strain of sorting, allocating, researching, analyzing, synthesizing, crosslinking, and filing spurred his idea for an invention that would perform this work for people. Bush popularized the idea that machines could solve the problem of information overload.

Bush wondered whether all the sprigs of scientific wisdom, if not somehow preserved, would fall from the tree of knowledge. Information must somehow by connected to be relevant, lest it become forgotten. Knowledge accumulated and stored in massive filing cabinets under lock and key would languish. An idea developed today might not be relevant until some point in the future. What happens, though, if it is forgotten? Application of all new knowledge would require some means of keeping it available, accessible, and relevant.

Bush saw purposeful communication and feedback as a means to fight entropy. Information that is unused and unorganized will disperse into the known. Bush wanted to liberate information from its Byzantine card catalogs, musty libraries, and research facilities. He wanted specialists to draw connections between their work and that of others in different disciplines. He wanted them to forge new alloys in science, mixing engineering with the abstract powers of mathematics, the solutions of chemistry, the vitalism of biology. Scientists werent the only ones suffering under the burden of specialization and information overload. So were lawyers, historians, businesspeople, and administrators. The world, this greatest of apparatus men proclaimed, is becoming increasingly complex.

So, it was in 1945, just after the end of the Second World War, that Bush published his ideas in The Atlantic Monthly. The essay was entitled As We May Think. In fact, Bush had written it originally in 1939, and waited till the end of the war to publish it, perhaps feeling that interest in his ideas during wartime may have been less.

Tomorrow: and the Memex


TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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