At a time when the world seems awash in an ever-expanding sea of information, Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think reminds us of the promises and challenges of making sense of a world increasingly recorded, mediated, and represented by digital technologies.
In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Bush summoned scientists to develop technologies that would make the “inherited knowledge of the ages” accessible to all. He was particularly interested in making vast realms of information immediately available. From our vantage point today, his vision of the memex with its monoculared user and stores of microfilm seems almost quaint, and at the same time eerily anticipatory of the latest wearable computing technology such as Google Glass.
But the last sections of As We May Think suggest that Bush recognized that the real power of the future Memex depended on the process of association – not just locating bits of information, but connecting them in meaningful and unique ways. He knew that leveraging the selection of information by association, rather than indexing, was the key to extending the power of human beings’ creative, symbolic and associative reasoning capacities.
And to me, this is the most prescient moment of the text. It suggests the power of the future we are now living, where the internet and digital media not only put infinite amounts of information at our disposal, but enable us to make meaningful associations, create new knowledge, and form networks that leverage expertise and mutual interest in ways that must have seemed truly fantastic (if not fanciful) in 1945.
While Bush is rightly given founding father status in the evolution of computing and the networked age, he was not the only visionary to bump up against the implicit difference between accessing or “having” information, and being able to mobilize it strategically or transform it into something new. A decade before Bush imagined the memex, the Belgian lawyer and peace activist, Paul Otlet, conceived of a network of “electrical telescopes” that would use telephone lines to access a multi-media archive connected with symbolic links and return selected items via “fax” to a screen. Also compelling is a short story written by Jorge Luis Borges in 1941. Ostensibly about espionage in World War II, “The Garden of Forking Paths” employs a structure that is equal parts labyrinth and web to present time as a recursive, unfolding force shaped by contingency and subject to infinite narrative outcomes. As with Otlet, the idea of hypertext – of the power of linking one thing to another — gives life and multiple meaning to the Borges’ garden, where narrative forks create shifts in time rather than motion through space:
….[Y]our ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries embraces all possibilities of time. NMR, p. 34
Like Otlet, Borges embraced a vision of the information age that was more symbolic than Bush’s memex, a vision perhaps more suggestive of the inviting and haunting possibilities of an expanding digital universe.