As We May Think

Oh, Vannevar Bush. I remember quite distinctly when I first read “As We May Think” in library school. I can’t lie-I really enjoy this article and his thoughts. He details the progress made in many technologies, including photography, faxes, television, and the phone and how mechanization has affected those technologies. Such mechanization is great, but how can we capture that and use it to get “access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages”? That’s the real question Bush strives to provide an answer for.

“Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose… and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.”

Boom – what a powerful statement. All these technological advances and mechanizations are progressive, sure, but what’s the point if we are progressing with things that aren’t worth their weight when compared to human knowledge on the whole? In my mind, this is still completely accurate today. So great, we have a thousand different widgets that can tell us all sorts of useless facts. How many steps did YOU take today? But how can we capture human experience in the 21st century on a whole? What does it mean about us and our society when the Library of Congress is keeping our tweets? I agree with Bush when he says that “publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” It’s great to have all these records and I can certainly say that as a librarian, but if there is little to zero utility in those records, it’s hard to see the point.

“A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.”

Can Bush be more clear about things? So we’re saving tweets (I’ll stick with that example). Is that going to be representative of anything more than what was going on at the time? What about our logical processes and how we connect objects, which is really what makes us inherently human? Bush’s solution is found in his replacement for indexing: mechanizing selection by association, as seen in his memex. How could I not include an animation of the monstrosity that is the memex!

His notion of wanting to retrieve information effectively and conveniently is logic that’s hard to deny. I think we see some of that logic developed when looking at what became the modern computer. As a librarian, I also think I can say that libraries have made a strong push since Bush’s time of writing in 1945 in storing, retrieving, and using information. Our catalogs have been digitized, we’ve incorporated not only detailed indexing, but facets, tools like virtual browse (for the visual learners), see similar items others are reading, and suggestion lists that are based on more than just logic formulas. The last thing I’ll say regarding this piece and libraries is that Bush cites the likelihood of a new profession developing in line with his memex: that of the trail blazer, or “those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.” What does that sound like to you? To me, it sounds just like a librarian. 🙂

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