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🍔  💀  📸  😭  🕳️  🤠  🎬  🥔 posts about Vannevar Bush

The Rise of the Trail Blazers

Somehow Snarkmarket contains no links to one of my favorite essays of all time, “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush. Our esteemed host has linked to it, of course, because is an unparalleled collection of fine hypertext products. But I think it’s worth a repeat. Many people know this essay, but most still don’t.

Bush was part of the Oppenheimer set; he was an engineer whose work was critical to the creation of the atomic bomb. By the time this essay was published, Mussolini and Hitler were dead, and World War II was almost over. He begins from a perspective I find cold and alienating, that of a scientist exhilarated by an intellectual pursuit that has left millions dead and more devastated. He doesn’t reckon with this even as he writes a paean to what science has accomplished:

Of what lasting benefit has been man’s use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment. They have improved his food, his clothing, his shelter; they have increased his security and released him partly from the bondage of bare existence. They have given him increased knowledge of his own biological processes so that he has had a progressive freedom from disease and an increased span of life. They are illuminating the interactions of his physiological and psychological functions, giving the promise of an improved mental health.

Science has provided the swiftest communication between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.

But then he goes on to outline a problem of knowledge that persists in our time and may have grown even worse:

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. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

Bush goes on to describe a series of technological leaps — in computing capability, optical storage, and more — that build on the state of the art of information storage and retrieval in his day. The advancements he imagines culminate in a written sketch of a machine:

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.

This essay is often described as presaging the internet. The design Bush sketched for the memex inspired generations of computer engineers, influencing the inventors of things like the computer mouse and hypertext. But what fascinates me about this essay is that the device he describes does not resemble the internet or anything I’ve ever found on it. And the problem Bush imagines the machine as solving — supplementing human memory — hasn’t been aided by the internet so much as worsened by it. (Cue Phaedrus: “You have invented an elixir not of memory, but of reminding.”)

The internet is an exploration machine; there’s a reason we call our portals to it “browsers.” What Bush was describing sounds to me like what you might get if you turned a browser history — the most neglected piece of the software — into a robust and fully featured machine of its own. It would help you map the path you charted through a web of knowledge, refine those maps, order them, and share them.

I don’t think anything like this exists. So Bush’s essay still transfixes me.

But the piece of Bush’s vision that dwells with me the most is the career he describes coming into being after his machine is commonplace. I’ve often called it the most beautiful definition of a journalist in the 21st Century I can think of:

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.

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