Memex and the Web

Imagine a system that allowed users to browse a vast library, jumping from topic to topic, making notes, printing and saving sections, building associations between topics. Sounds like the World Wide Web, right? It does sound like the Web, but it's also the way in which American scientist Vannevar Bush described the future of information storage and retrieval over 50 years ago, in an article entitled "As We My Think" in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the government agency in charge of marshaling American science for the war effort, realized that while technology was making great strides, the basic way in which we stored and organized information had changed little in 200 years.

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.
So Bush wonders: What if the new inventions like electric eyes, vacuum tubes, television and microfilm were applied the the problem of sorting and finding information?

Many of Bush's musings are a little off the mark; predictions of the future never work out exactly, and no-one could have predicted exactly how the technologies developed for war would be applied to peacetime use. It is remarkable, however, how Bush picke d the management of information as the great challenge to come. If you read science fiction written before the 1950s, you will have noticed the almost total lack of computers in the stories; astronauts rocket though the galaxy with a ray gun in one hand a nd a slide rule in the other.

Yet Bush saw, where many failed to see, that computers, or devices like them, were not simply possible, but were actually necessary for a complex civilization to function: There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.

Despite the fact that only a handful of computers had ever been built, and that they were really only useful for doing mathematical calculations, Bush envisioned a machine (which he called a "memex") which sounds very much like our World Wide Web browsers:

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.
Just as Leonardo DaVinci's drawings of helicopters had to wait for the development of the internal combustion engine, and Charles Bababge's Difference Engine had to wait for the development of electronics, so too did Bush's vision had to wait for the deve lopment of cheap, easy-to-use computers. By extending the reach of modern information technology to the broader community, Chebucto Community Net is helping to achive what Vannevar Bush saw distant glimpses of, fifty years before us.

You can read all of the original text of"As We May Think" online.

Robert Currie


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