As We Thought

Sep 7, 2021
The Encyclopædia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk.
— Vannevar Bush, 1945

In 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote an article in the Atlantic, As We May Think, that predicted some of the most significant technological advancements that would only be realized decades later. It would become a blueprint we could use to trace back some of the technology that shapes our world today.

Bush predicted a tiny, auto-focusing camera that scientists could use to take photos with their glasses. But, despite seeing the future, Bush still thought it would be a wired device.

Bush headed the U.S. Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II.

Or another device, which Bush called a memex:

“Consider a future device …  in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.”

He believed that computers could be more than calculation machines (although Bush was one first to build a mechanical computer that solved differential equations). He describes the abilities of the memex as something close to what we have today with networked computers over the internet. This wasn't a coincidence.

A few years later, on a small Navy outpost in the Philippines, an engineer named Doug Englebart would read As We May Think. Englebart would be the inventor of the computer mouse, hypertext, networked computers, and the precursors to graphical user interfaces. He cites Vannevar Bush as one of the main influences behind his inventions.

Bush didn't just predict some of the technological results of the rest of the 20th century, but also the social changes of how we interacted with computers. He thought deeply about the onslaught of information and our ability to organize it, he said

“Thus far we seem to be worse off than before—for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it”.

We've solved many of the problems in Bush's original article, but information overload and the vast complexity technology has brought on new problems. So what is next? That's beyond my pay-grade. The archaeology of modern-day computers is just that, archaeology. Steve Jobs famously said:

“You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

You can read the entire 1945 article as it originally appeared in the Atlantic here.

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