Vannevar Bush published an essay in The Atlantic entitled “As We May Think” in 1945. In it, he details major technological developments due to the urgency of war. However, with the war over, he was concerned that these technological advancements would lead to a proliferation of information beyond what humans could reasonably manage, or manage well. In this upcoming crisis of ‘Information Overload,’ he felt it’d be impossible for us to find the information we need because there would be too much of it and no way to recall it. Bush suspected the problem not to be in the information itself but our ability to index the information. Based on an insight that human mind operates on a principle of association rather than indexing, Bush came up with an abstract machine called the Memex. It’s a conceptual device with inputs, outputs and an unlimited amount of storage where information can be stored and recalled.
“Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.”
– As We May Think, Vannevar Bush, 1945
The concept of trails is where one could add notes to information and through those notes create a trail connecting related information. Connecting information this way results in a unique spider web of data in ‘traces’ as Bush called them. The ability to link certain information to another information is the core concepts behind the Memex. In Bush’s view, the Memex machine will eliminate the need to remember everything all the time or rummage through a huge pile of things on a desk (i.e. memory) to access the needed data. This character is similar to Hypertext which is the essential characteristic of the World Wide Web. Hypertext is a very powerful way to connect discrete information with each other. As a result, reading online is very different from reading books because of this feature of contextualizing information in a dynamic way. Project Xanadu by Theodor Holm Nelson is one of the early examples of Hypertext project.
“As We May Think” was widely read at the time of publication and has served as a textbook for the generations of engineers and designers to come. Many technologists later followed Bush’s vision, often time literally, to envision and realize new generation of computers.
The most well known of these is Douglas Engelbart who demonstrated a version of ‘associative trails’ through a touch-screen like interface in 1968. Later on, movies such as the Minority Report in 2002 continue to demonstrate a version of ‘associative trails’ as envisioned by Bush. In the famous scene, the protagonist Tom Cruise navigate through a 3D interface to find an evidence.
To this day, there are many contemporary technologies that hold the lineage of Memex machines as its basic principles are integrated into the smartphones we use, self tracking devices and social media. These applications and devices are designed to, and do indeed, augment human ability to remember. With the powerful computation, humans learned to use the help of computers to remember and communicate. However the Memex presents one particular types of vision for computers, and it’s not without shortcomings.
Bush claims humans are incapable of indexing large quantities of information, hence his invention of the Memex. However, in addressing this concern of how humans can effectively access information by means of the Memex, Bush promotes a simplified vision of how human memory operates. Wendy Chun critiques this in her essay “The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory”:
“In Bush’s writing, and in prognoses for the information revolution more generally, there is no difference between access to and understanding the record, between what would be called, perhaps symptomatically, machine reading and human reading and comprehension, between information and argument. The difficulty supposedly lies in selecting the data, not in reading it, for it is assumed that reading is a trivial act, a simple comprehension of the record’s content. Once the proper record is selected, there is no misreading, no misunderstanding, only transparent information. If the scientific record has not been advanced, if thought is repeated, it is because something has not been adequately disseminated.” - The Enduring Ephemeral, or the Future Is a Memory Chun
To unpack the Chun’s words figuratively, having an access to an information does not necessarily mean having an understand of it. Reading certain information does not necessarily mean comprehend it. And most importantly, information is useless without an argument to provide context to make it meaningful.
Access ≠ Understanding
Reading ≠ Comprehension
Information ≠ Argument
These relationships are intricately connected with one another. We, the humans, remember certain information by finding arguments around it, creating contexts for comprehension, and through repetition, understand the information. However, Bush makes a deterministic assumption about the human brain.
“In the outside world, 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. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs”
On the statement above, Bush simplify and conflate storage with memory in his narrative about the Memex machine. Chun argues on the fact that humans and computers access and process information differently. Human brains have characteristics of ‘plasticity’ and computers, while they can imitate the plasticity, always operates on a series of instructions. I will explore these differences through two sub-chapters, first one the concept of forgetting and second on the concept of plasticity.