Vanevar Bush: As We May Think

20 days ago

Back at UP Los Baños when I was working on my Special Problem for my bachelor's degree, I chose to work on a little project related to Hypertext. 

At the time, the implications of being able to link a piece of content to another fascinated me as a clever way of presenting information that would have depth but without necessarily exposing everything all at once.

Maybe it was partially inspired by those Choose Your Own Adventure books I enjoyed when I was a kid. Non-linear storytelling with its several possible endings for me was more compelling.

The graphical program I wrote in 1993 for this academic credit was called NoteCards for DOS. It was compiled in Borland C++ by the same folks who brought us Turbo Pascal and Turbo C. Spreadsheet enthusiasts might  have heard of Quattro Pro.

In NoteCards you create one file, and in it you can create multiple notecards. You then link them all together with buttons. You could also bring in PCX images  from a program called PC Paintbrush. It only supported a handful of colors (maybe 16 max) but at the time, that was plenty enough to work with.

Folks who were fortunate enough to have a Macintosh probably have heard of HyperCard. I didn't have the chance to play around with it and only read about it in issues of Scientific American and ACM journals about hypertext as I was doing my research.

It was not for another 2 years before I would ever get my own email address but when I saw my first graphical browser, a unix program called NCSA Mosaic, my mind was blown.

Anyway this post really is about a particular article that I came across during my research. The article of particular note was from 1945 by scientist Dr. Vanevar Bush, a call to action among scientists on what to do next after the war has ended. In it, he talks about what he coined a memex — which was short for 'memory extension':

"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.​"

Pretty insane isn't it? This was in 1945! It is not until some 40 or so years later before Tim Berners-Lee would publish the first few pages of the World Wide Web on his NeXT computer over at CERN.

Dr. Bush then talks about a few use cases for this memex:

"Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client's interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient's reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogous case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology. The chemist, struggling with the synthesis of an organic compound, has all the chemical literature before him in his laboratory, with trails following the analogies of compounds, and side trails to their physical and chemical behavior."

It really is pretty amazing, the sort of things we sometimes take for granted these days. All of the world's information quickly accessible right from this tiny device we keep in our pocket!

Vanevar Bush's full article can be found in theAtlantic.com.

What do you think? Have you encountered any old visionary article or description that was pretty close to the stuff we see nowadays?