Much of what Vannervar Bush had suggested and predicted in his essay As We May Think in 1945 has become real by now in 2011. For example, the memex, "a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library" now exists as the form of iPad. When we read the passage saying that "Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized," we know it has already been done by Google. It is amazing to know that he predicted the coming of Wikipedia half a century before it started. He wrote more than 60 years ago that "wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them." However, here I'd like to discuss a little about the point he missed in his argument regarding the technology that actually became real later to clarify what he could not foresee at the time even with his excellent intelligence.
I think the most obvious point in Bush's argument which is not in accordance with the technology today is that he did not think data could be recorded and reproduced digitally. He did know that visual and audio materials could be converted electronically into and transmitted through the other media. He repeatedly refers to the electronic use of images and audio such as the photocells in photography, the moving beams of electrons on television equipment, and the mechanical voice converters called Voder and Vocoder in his essay. He also gives an example of how electrical vibrations transmit what eyes see through the optic nerve. He then applies the theory to all the other activities in a brain saying that "all forms of intelligence, whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted." He also knew that using thermionic-tubes in an equipment is much faster and more efficient than using mechanical ones, but what he actually envisioned as a selection device "Memex" is still heavily based on the mechanical functions.
- Using binary digits to represent all numbers and data
- Performing all calculations using electronics rather than wheels, ratchets, or mechanical switches
- Organizing a system in which computation and memory are separated.
In fact, Bush refers to this computer in his essay without mentioning its name. He then imagined that "the advanced arithmetical machines of the future will be electrical in nature" and "they will be far more versatile than present commercial machines, so that they may readily be adapted for a wide variety of operations." He also suggests that all the data should be recorded "on the card may be made by magnetic dots on a steel sheet," which had actually been used in the ABC. Although he knew that the information can be digitally encoded into 0 and 1 and decoded by using a computer, he did not apply this idea to his "new and powerful instrumentalities" - the memex.
It is true that Bush's essay has inspired a lot of people for more than 60 years. There is no doubt that it led the way to prepare for the coming generation of World Wide Web. What prevented him from integrating the idea of digitalization and memex is probably because he had been involved much in the fields of physics and engineering but not in information science (which was a quite new academic discipline at the time) and could not get out from the mechanical and material paradigms of his own (as seen in his essay, he only refers to physicists among other scientists). We had to wait another few decades to see the rise of information technology from the other scientific field.