In his 1945 paper “As We May Think,” Dr. Vannevar Bush made many accurate predictions about future technologies. Bush suggested that cameras could be as small as walnuts, they would automatically adjust the exposure to the light in the room, the lens would be of universal focus, there would be film for over 100 pictures, and they would only need to be wound once. Bush also predicted that “the Encyclopaedia Britannica would be reduced to the volume of a match box,… material for [it] would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent” (p. 4). Even Bush’s prophecies about “the author of the future talk[ing] directly to the record” (p. 5) have been realized, with speech to text and text to speech programs.
Although many of the predictions made throughout “As We May Think” have come true, there is one major prediction that has yet to occur. Bush believed that a machine would be built that would extend human intelligence and memory by giving the user easy and rapid access to vast quantities of information, or “the record.” This hypothetical machine was given the name Memex. According to Bush, science was at a precarious time, because “publication [had] been extended far beyond [their] ability to make real use of the record” (p. 2). He felt that for a record “to be useful to science, [it] must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted” (p. 3). Bush was afraid that “truly significant attainments [in science would] become lost in the mass of the inconsequential” (p. 2). His machine was the answer to this problem.
The Memex was to look like a desk, with all of the information stored on microfilm. The user would tap in a code corresponding to the book that he wanted to read, and the Memex would project the pages of the book from the microfilm onto the desktop. The user would be able to add notes, pictures, or other memorabilia to his book via a camera built into the Memex, and he would also be able to purchase other microfilm to add to his Memex so that the information would be current.
The defining feature of Bush’s creation was that it mimicked the human thought process, by enabling the user to pull up information by association. In his paper, Bush states that the human mind works by association, and that “our ineptitude at getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing” (p. 9). With the Memex, “any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another. This is the essential feature of the Memex, [because] the process of tying two items together is the important thing” (p. 10). For example, a person may be
“studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his Memex. First he runs through an encyclopaedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, and leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him” (p. 11).
Unlike human memory, this trail would never fade, and the user could pass his trail on to another Memex owner. In later versions, Bush’s Memex would even build trails by itself, by recognizing keywords in different articles, and tying those articles together for the owner (Bush, 1967).
In theory, this sounds like a remarkably useful machine, which begs the following question. With so many of Bush’s other foresights coming true, why has this seemingly brilliant idea never come to fruition? The cost of building a Memex, which Bush felt was the major roadblock for a real life installment of his machine, is no longer an issue in the present day and age. Bush’s (1967) other concerns of gross information storage and rapid access have also been rendered moot by digital computing, so why is a modern equivalent of Bush’s Memex not available for purchase?
Part of the problem is that the Memex was a personal memory support, not a public database in the sense of the modern internet (Barnet, 2008). The potential for collaboration is much greater in a public database than in notes and “trails” passed amongst a few highly regarded experts. This is evidenced by the emerging success of Wikipedia over Britannica or Encarta. In addition, a public database has a much wider economic market than a purely academic personal aid.
However, an even larger flaw in Bush’s reasoning may have been the assumption that because his machine mimicked human thought, it was automatically better than a system that did not mirror the human brain. According to Ong, technology does not have to emulate human thought to be effective. Ong (2002) states that “technologies are artificial, but… artificiality is natural to humans. Technology, properly interiorised, does not degrade human life but on the contrary enhances it.”
Further support that mimicry is not crucial for technology to be effective is provided by Barnet (2008). In her examination of the Memex, Barnet indicates that Bush was uncomfortable with digital electronics as a means of storage, as “the brain does not operate by reducing everything to indices and computation.” Bush did not realize that digital electronics could operate unseen to the user, and serve the same function as the actual mechanism he proposed would physically retrieve and display the microfilm. However, digital electronics would hold millions of books, and they would allow users to search through all of those books extremely quickly – both qualities that Bush strove for in his Memex.
In the spirit of Bush’s 1945 article, I will make a prediction about what his Memex may look like, some time in the distant future. The Memex will be a tiny microchip, or network of microchips implanted in your brain and along your brain stem, that can completely and unobtrusively interface with your thoughts. You won’t be able to feel it, and you’ll never notice it, but it will allow you to perfectly memorize an entire book and flawlessly remember every conversation you ever had. You will be able to remember what you had for lunch 37 years, 45 days, and one hour ago, as if you just finished your lunch an hour ago.
This Memex will work by “recording” the electrical impulses as they run to your brain when you watch a TV show, or touch a piece of fur. If you wanted it to, the microchip could re-send those same electrical impulses to your brain, and you would see EXACTLY what you saw when you first watched the show, and feel exactly what you felt when you first touched the fur. In other words a perfect memory would be recreated.
You could go on vacation, and your implant would record every electrical impulse that goes shooting up to your brain. You could then wirelessly send that record to some friends, and they could re-live your entire vacation. Every sight, smell, sound, texture, and taste that you experienced would be replayed as a set of electrical impulses from their implants to their brains, and it would all happen from the comfort of their own homes.
To some, this prediction may seem far fetched and unlikely. Those skeptics may agree with Bush (1945), who felt that “prophecy based on extension of the known has substance, while prophecy founded on unknown is only a doubly involved guess,” so I will leave you with a few articles to peruse, should you happen to have the time.
Barnet, B. (2008). The Technical Evolution of Vannevar Bush’s Memex. Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. Retrieved October 26, 2010, from http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/2/1/000015/000015.html#nyce1991
Bush, V. (1967). Memex Revisited. Retrieved October 26, 2010, from http://courses.kathiegossett.com/pdfs/bush_memexrevisited.pdf
Bush, V. (1945). As We May Think. The Atlantic Monthly, 176(1), 101-108. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush
Keep, C., McLaughlin, T., & Parmar, R. (2000). The Electronic Labyrinth: Vannevar Bush. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://www2.iath.virginia.edu/elab//hfl0034.html
Nelson, T. (1999). Xanalogical structure, needed now more than ever: Parallel documents, deep links to content, deep versioning and deep re-use. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from
Ong, W. J. (2002). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London and New York: Routledge.