Commentary #2 – Technology, human experience and memory

Although nature commences with reason and ends in experience, it is necessary for us to do the opposite, that is, to commence as I said before with experience and from this to proceed to investigate the reason.   

Leonardo da Vinci

Vannevar Bush’s (1945) article “As We May Think’, explores ways in which technology can be used to store knowledge ‘paths’ in much the same way that the human brain does, by forming associative links rather than data selection based on common factors.                         His concerns surround the growing volume of knowledge available and how to store and access it in a way that is both expedient and interdisciplinary. Bush states that, “a record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted” (Bush, 1945, p. 3).  Bush’s (1945) article expresses a major concern about providing access and control over information and knowledge to people especially because so much knowledge had been lost in the form of human life and there was a potential risk of losing historical archives during bombing raids and massive destructions across Europe after World War II.

In his article, Bush (1945) goes on to explain that, “every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine” (Bush, 1945, p.8).  Bush’s method of thinking is very linear, as is evident in his description of how the ‘memex’ machine works.  He states that records are consulted with codes and “frequently used codes are mnemonic” (Bush, 1945, p. 12). The philosophical framework for Bush’s theory refers to using facts to build something creative, a theory that became the core idea behind HTML structure.  While this theory may be true in a purely quantitative context, I believe that a more qualitative view that considers the interconnected thinking is required when dealing with creativity. Perhaps a Borgesian, non-linear thinking and a more holistic view would be more fitting. A labyrinth of interconnected thinking can be seen for example, in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, perhaps one of the best known proponents of holistic scientific thought. Like Bush’s, Da Vinci’s scientific work spanned times of war and peace.  The same method of observation that informed his design of an armoured vehicle was also used in the creation of the Mona Lisa.  But while a machine could very well select associative words like ‘plated’, ‘impenetrable’ and ‘protective’ and eventually provide the basic idea behind an armoured car, could it also bring to life the design based on the shape of a mollusk? Could a linear investigation of light, pose and composition provide the blueprint for the emotional impact, mystery and painterly skill of the Mona Lisa? 

What is missing in Bush’s theory is the realization that in the act of creation, the role of emotion and human experience are vital.  A holistic scientific approach, although used for centuries, was only acknowledged as a legitimate approach in the 1970’s (Capra 2011, para.1) well after Bush wrote his article.  According to Oxford’s online dictionary, the word ‘holistic’ is defined as “characterized by the belief that the parts of something are intimately interconnected and explicable only by reference to the whole”. So, while Bush’s associative links may be interconnected, in a holistic view they would also need to be non-linear and parts of a greater truth or idea.

As another example, Newton’s theory of gravity is proven by mathematical deductions but the basic concept came to him while observing an apple falling from a tree.  His observation triggered a logical thought, which was then supported with mathematical reasoning.  Experience first, then reason but there could be no reason without the human experience. Like scientific research, human memory is also reliant on senses as well as on an emotional response. According to Martin Lindstrom (2005) “the fact is that we experience practically our entire understanding of the world via our sense. They’re our link to memory. They tap into emotions, past and present.” (p.13).

While a mechanical record may evoke memory by sight, how would it appeal to the senses of smell, touch, hearing and taste? A historical record of associative links could call up facts about D-Day on the beaches of Normandybut anyone who has been in the battlefield would have a much stronger memory trigger if they smelled blood, felt cold sand between their fingers or heard the shrill sound of a shell falling.

Bush’s idea of recording knowledge with associated links was instrumental in Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson’s development of hyperlinks, hypertext and hypermedia, all vital components of the World Wide Web. Ironically, the Web has not been able to overcome knowledge and become ‘lost in the mass of the inconsequential’, (Bush, 1945, p.2) even if it does provide a more efficient way of sourcing it.                                            However, users of the Internet have been able to overcome the creative limitations of the ‘machine’ through social networking, which provides a platform for the human narrative, as defined by emotional and sensual experience.  Social networking also has an immediacy, that enhances interconnectedness, and because there are different ideas and personalities at play, the thought process is more in line with Borges’s labyrinth than with Bush’s linearity.

While Bush’s understanding of the nature of dynamic record keeping is obvious especially when he is referring to the machines that process cognitive thought, he states that “one might as well attempt to grasp the game of poker entirely by the use of the mathematics of probability” (Bush, 1945, p.8), one thing that is missing here again is the role of human experience since most poker games are won by observing the opponent and making emotionally based evaluations.


Bolter, J. D. (2001). Writing Space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print Mahway,NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Bush, V. (1945) As we may think                                                                                            Retrieved from

Capra, F. (2011) Creating an environment that encourages vitality                               Retrieved from

Lindstrom, M. (2005) Brand sense                                                                                           New York: Free Press

MacCurdy E. (1939) The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, Movement and weight (pp.546)New York: Braziller G.

Oxford’s Online Dictionary (n.d)                                                                                                Retrieved from

This entry was posted in Commentary 2 and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply