As We May Think

With the end of the war, many scientists were losing their jobs in war-time efforts. As We May Think is a call for the enhancement of knowledge delivery systems, a peace-time ideal; something to enhance humanity as opposed to destroying it.  “A record, if it is to be used in science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.” (Bush, 1945) These words are the core of Bush’s message. Without access, knowledge cannot be used. Science was progressing at a pace beyond the capabilities of information delivery systems. Traditional publishing was inadequate to keep up with the heightened production of scientific research. Bush wanted to see a revolution in information sharing and expanded on how it may come.

The continuous extension of knowledge, is seen today most graphically in Wikis. These collaborative, constantly updated pages are a great source of up to date information. With the rapid changing pace of science and technology in the 40s, Bush saw it necessary to have the most current information available to all. Information from 3 weeks ago may no longer be relevant in some fields. Twitter and other forms of social media allow news to be reported as it happens from multiple points of view. This constant barrage of information requires a great deal of filtering. Everyone’s phone is a publishing tool. Information can be obtained as events unfold. This can lead to discrepancies amongst sources. What is the most recent information may not be the most accurate.

In science, to prove your capabilities and theories, you need to keep an accurate record. Every detail must be recorded in order for your research to withstand the scrutiny of your peers. An experiment that is not adequately described is impossible to recreate and thus, unable to be tested. Bush describes future recording tools and speaks of the power of images. He welcomed the breakout of the visual as described by Bolter (2001). Images take up space and the compression of large files into smaller is introduced through microfilm. (Bush, 1945) Today’s compression is digital and keeps file sizes down for speed of transfer.

Text is not always the best way to display information yet it was the easiest, cheapest way to publish information. Distribution of journals, was therefore an expensive, slow process. Current publication costs are essentially zero as all you need to distribute your research is bandwidth. Most papers that have ever been published are available online. The peer review process is still highly regarded and most journals hide their content behind pay walls to cover costs.  Increasingly, journals are being published as free documents able to be accessed by unknown colleagues all over the world. Counter to Bush’s predictions they have remained largely text based but educational materials on the internet have made good use of increased storage and bandwidth.

All the data in the world is meaningless unless it can be accessed. The current state of search as driven by computers has moved far beyond card catalogues. Obtaining information from the journals was a slow and tedious process in need of a modern makeover. The “ineptitude of getting at the record,” was another way in which machines could take over to save time. (Bush, 1945) From computational knowledge algorithms like Wolfram|Alpha to keyword matching sites like Google, the process of information recovery is much faster. Current internet technologies crowd source and use tags, ratings and popularity to find the best match. A sort of amateur peer-review system is built into the current search methodologies.

The mountain of information grows faster with each day. The ease of publishing online extends to everyone, not only traditional or reputable publishing houses. The quickand easy self-publishing boom has increased the availability of garbage but has also increased competition. With the current social nature of the internet, amateurs are training and innovating in order to provide the most highly rated service. Almost all how-to materials on the internet incorporate images if not video. Increasingly the most up to date troubleshooting or technology tips are available as free, on-demand videos. TED Talks is one academically acceptable access point to current, reviewed research. On the whole, academics has fallen behind modern innovations with journals today appearing very much the same as they did in the past.

With all this processing power and information sharing capability, we are at a turning point in education. The more mundane, repetitive processes, like calculations and basic search are increasingly relegated to machines. (Bush, 1945) Education trends are adapting to technologies. The goal of education is to enable our students to become critical thinkers. With an abundance of information, we rely on machines to store the majority of data. Current technology cannot be trusted to filter out all the inaccuracies and so we need to focus on ways to separate valid from invalid. Teachers not only alter the content of their lessons but how lessons are being delivered. Kahn has championed the flipped classroom. Students get information outside of the classroom and the teacher is able to focus on application and exploration of the knowledge.  (Thompson. 2011) We are more able to focus on the skills of information manipulation than to worry about the process of information storage and retrieval.

Bush laid out a very successful theory for how knowledge would be accessed in the future. The internet has made current research available to almost anyone in the world. This is necessary in science as progress depends on access to relevant information. The biggest accomplishment is enabling access to the world’s best minds for the masses. The benefits of increased information sharing are great but also bring about information overload. Educational practices are changing in order to increase our content filters. Many of Bush’s solutions are effective today and we should heed his cautions. We cannot trust everything our machines of limitless knowledge tell us.


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, Hypertext, and the Remediation of Print. Lawrence Erlbaum.

Bush, V. (1945). As We May Think

Thompson, C. (2011). How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education. Wired Magazine, 1-5.

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One Response to As We May Think

  1. murray12 says:

    “The mountain of information grows faster with each day.”

    Historically, dense populations can often bring out the competative nature of people to become increasingly innovative. As the online world becomes increasingly more populated, do you think we will see an increase in innovations? Or, will the online world continue to increase rapidly like the universe, bring us further and further apart?

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