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A most remarkable thing…

If you’ve never read Vannevar Bush’s 1945 Atlantic Monthly article, titled “As We May Think” on the task of making information more accessible, you have missed something amazing.

Bush was the Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development in the United States during the Second World War.  During that time, the office developed a remarkable number of weapons and other military technologies.  He was involved in the Manhattan project until the Army assumed its control.  His office was also responsible for developing a means by which to mass-produce penicillin.  As the end of the War approached, Bush wrote his Atlantic article, celebrating the collaboration scientists during the war, and suggesting directions for their attention as peace approached.

He begins by discussing scientific development during the war, then laments the inadequacies of the methods of publishing scientific knowledge, noting particularly the case of Mendel’s finding on the laws of genetics, which were lost for a generation. He says:

Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

Bush then highlights that it is a necessity to implement a new system for the organisation and storage of information, and the possibility that the author could write directly to the permanent record, rather than using a typewriter or hand-writing something, to them be sent on, published in hard copy, then copied to a more permanent record.

It’s a remarkable article, far ahead of its time, which set the foundations for much of modern computing research.  While the oft-quoted president of IBM said in 1958 there was a world market for maybe five computers, Bush foresaw both the need for and advantages of a modern computers and their capacity to store and share the vast human knowledge.

In the final paragraphs of the article, Bush envisages a technology called “Memex”, by which individuals could store, access and search information, and follow links to related information.  It was the theoretical foundation of hypertext.

What a shame, though, that we now have the technology to share and organize information, yet much of this information is still not available to us, kept apart so profitability is maintained.  It is anachronistic and, truly, quite undemocratic.  Certainly, most researchers would have access to the information they need via digital databases accessed through universities, but it still seems fundamentally wrong that we have developed the system Bush envisaged, yet countless people are unable to access much of that vast store of human knowledge.

It is thoroughly worth setting the time aside to read the article, and to reflect on the remarkable access we have to so much of what humankind has discovered, thought, and created.  Perhaps reflecting on how our generation is blessed with unprecedented access to information will inspire us to more readily and frequently engage with that vast store of information.

Oh, and a post-script: watch out for the bit, late in the article, where he predicts the invention of Wikipedia!

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