As we may think

As we may think Vannevar Bush, The Atlantic, 1945

To close out the week, here’s another selection from the ‘Great moments in computing’ list – and it’s a true classic. Bush’s article was written in 1945 when he was Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development coordinating the work of about six thousand scientists in the war effort. With the war coming to an end, the central question Bush addresses is what scientists should now turn their attention too.

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers — conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear…. Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose… The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

We need better approaches to tap into this body of knowledge. How can machines help us in our thinking processes? To be useful to science a record must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.

When it comes to recording information, Bush envisions a small camera attached to the forehead, by which a scientist moving about the laboratory of field can capture a picture of anything of interest. And whereas today (1945) we use a pencil or a typewriter, ‘will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record?’.

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together… As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

To leave time for high-value thinking activities, machines should automate as many repetitive or rule-based tasks as possible:

Whenever logical processes of thought are employed — that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove — there is an opportunity for the machine.

For example, “it is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic.” Beyond the logic of the mathematician, lies the application of logic in everyday affairs, ”we may someday click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register.”

So much for the manipulation of ideas and their insertion into the record. Thus far we seem to be worse off than before — for we can enormously extend the record; yet even it its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge.

One of the deep problems that Bush highlights is that selection of information is primarily via indices, and yet the human mind works by association. We create trails of thought. And this leads us to the famous memex

The memex

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, “memex” will do. 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.

You can buy content (on microfilm) ready for loading into the memex — books, pictures, periodicals, newspapers and so on. Business correspondence can also be saved. For you own content you can place longhand notes, photographs, memoranda etc., on top of a special platen on the desk, whereby pressing a special lever causes it to be photographed and placed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex microfilm.

Fast movement forward and backward when reviewing content (e.g., a book) is via special levers which allow movement forward and backward by 10 pages at a time with a short throw of the lever, and 100 pages with a long throw. With a dedicated button you can go immediately to the first page of the memex index. The memex desk has several positions to which content can be projected, thus the user can leave one item in position while calling up another.

He can add marginal notes and comments, taking advantage of one possible type of dry photography, and it could even be arranged so that he can do this by a stylus scheme…

It is associative indexing though, that is the essential feature of the memex, “the process of tying two items together is the important thing.” Bush describes a hypertext like mechanism at this point, but most interesting from my perspective is his emphasis on a trail as a fundamental unit — something we largely seem to have lost today.

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard… when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

Trails can be shared with others, for insertion into their own memexes. What kind of things might we build with such trails:

  • “Wholly new forms of encyclopedia will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the mesh and there amplified.”
  • Lawyers have at their touch, “the associated opinions and decisions of their whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities.”
  • Patent attorneys have details of millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of their client’s interest.
  • Physicians can run rapidly through case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology.
  • Chemists have all the chemical literature before them, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behaviour.

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

Documents and links we have aplenty. But where are our trails?