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rethinking the Internet, part one: "as we may think"


"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."

from As We May Think, Vannevar Bush, July 1945.

(First of an intended "loosely coupled" series of posts on the history of the Internet and revisiting some of its concepts and the seminal works that made it what it is today.)

Two of the most influential people in the history of computing have been, without a doubt, Ted Nelson and Doug Engelbart. Nelson, in defining with relative precision ideas that we use today (such as hyperlinks) and Engelbart leading a team that created basically everything that we use today. Nelson's ideas didn't beyond prototype stage, and Engelbart's and his team's work had to wait until they were revisited (in many cases by the same people) at Xerox PARC and through it exposed to the wider world via Apple and then Microsoft. (Which ideas? Let's see: The Mouse. Wireless Networks. LANs. Windowing systems--for starters!).

Both Nelson and Engelbart were influenced by Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think". Engelbart read Bush's article in a copy of the Atlantic Monthly he found at a Red Cross library in Manila, while waiting for his transport home after World War Two. Nelson went as far as reprinting the entire article in his first book, Literary Machines. I'll come back to Nelson's and Engelbart's in another post---For now on to Bush's article.

The last time I read "As We May Think" was about two years ago. Back then, I noted that Bush was embedded in an "analog worldview" but not much else (He was an analog kind of guy: the computer he worked on, the Rockefeller Differential Analyzer, was an analog computer that helped in calculations of artillery firing tables and radar antenna profiles--and promptly rendered obsolete with the arrival of digital computers). The ideas were great, but limited because of that. But in re-reading it this time I noted something else: Bush was describing a digital system, without digital technology.

There's a difference between a) "thinking analog" and b) being trapped by the limitations of analog technology. And Bush seems to be on the second category. This wasn't apparent to me the last time I read the article. Once you shift your view a little from "analog" to "trapped by analog" the ideas he discussed become even more astonishing. Take, for example, digital photography.

Will there be dry photography? It is already here in two forms. When Brady made his Civil War pictures, the plate had to be wet at the time of exposure. Now it has to be wet during development instead. In the future perhaps it need not be wetted at all. [There have long been films ... which form a picture without development, so that it is already there as soon as the camera has been operated ...] The process is now slow, but someone may speed it up, and it has no grain difficulties such as now keep photographic researchers busy. Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.
Bush goes back to this idea of "dry photography" a few times more. The problem in the article (if it can be called a problem) is that he tries to imagine the device constraining himself with the technology available at the time and in some cases an order of magnitude better in one or more axis of improvement (such as resolution of the film). But as I read it, what I saw more and more was someone saying "we need to get film out of the way. Send pictures directly into the machine's memory". In this case, the machine memory was also film (microfilm) and so it's a vicious logical circle.

But replace all the analog ideas with digital. He was talking about digital photography, albums, and massive databases that would contain them forever. We do this today without thinking twice about it. Had Bush not constrained himself by the technology available on his day, describing only function "As We May Think" would doubtlessly be considered a lot more than what it is today.

This technology constrain appears again and again. When Bush talks about compression, he is describing size-reduction on the microfilm, building on increased precision on light reflection techniques. When he talks about Voice I/O

At a recent World Fair a machine called a Voder was shown. A girl stroked its keys and it emitted recognizable speech. No human vocal chords entered into the procedure at any point; the keys simply combined some electrically produced vibrations and passed these on to a loud-speaker. In the Bell Laboratories there is the converse of this machine, called a Vocoder. The loudspeaker is replaced by a microphone, which picks up sound. Speak to it, and the corresponding keys move. This may be one element of the postulated system.
he is similarly trapped by analog technology. But all the ideas are there.

Nearing the end of the article, Bush puts together all of his concepts into his now-famous Memex device:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "memex" will do. A memex is a 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.

It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.

In one end is the stored material. The matter of bulk is well taken care of by improved microfilm. Only a small part of the interior of the memex is devoted to storage, the rest to mechanism. Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion. Books of all sorts, pictures, current periodicals, newspapers, are thus obtained and dropped into place. Business correspondence takes the same path. And there is provision for direct entry. On the top of the memex is a transparent plate. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sorts of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed.

A central point of the Memex is that it records any kind data. Text. Images. Sound. In his view, everything would be reduced to microfilms, which would then be manipulated by a mechanical system.

The only difference is that storage happens on analog devices.

Even the "hyperlinks" (a term coined by Nelson). Everything that Bush describes there is basically what we do today.

Bush describes the concept of "trails" which are constructed through links on the microfiche:

When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined. In each code space appears the code word. Out of view, but also in the code space, is inserted a set of dots for photocell viewing; and on each item these dots by their positions designate the index number of the other item.
As I read the article this time, all I could think of was "Arrgh!! You're so close! Come on, say it! Digital! Digital!"

But he didn't say it. :)

Regardless. There are two things that I took away from this re-reading.

The first is that analog technology is vastly underrated. The Memex is crearly a device that can work exactly as Bush described it, particularly with today's micro- and nano-scale technology. (most of which, paradoxically enough, has been driven basically by digital technology). Of course, I'm not saying that we should go back to analog, but we barely think about it anymore. Are we missing something because of that? One problem with analog is that unless you're both a physicist and a computer scientist you're not likely to go anywhere. Digital allows us to separate the domains more clearly. You give me the chips, I'll write some cool software for it. That distinction would be less strong (or even disappear) with analog technology.

The second, and more important is: re-evaluating old ideas is useful. Who knows what else we are missing? Even if it's quite possible that the great ideas live on, the viewpoint that a different kind of technology gives you is priceless. Sometimes there are simpler solutions to things--we just can't see them because we know too damn much. Why use a nail and a hammer when a particle accelerator will do? :) (Another problem is that it's much cooler to ask for funding for particle accelerators than for boxes of nails).

Problem is, there's too much information, and even though our retrieval and correlation capabilities have increased, the amount of information itself has grown even more, putting us back into the "days of square rigged ships" that Bush mused about. We are still some way off the Memex vision, but we're closer. When we get there, it will certainly be worth spending some time using it to wade through the historical and scientific record once more to see what viewpoints and ideas can grow out of the past and help us build new visions of the future.

Categories: technology
Posted by diego on November 24 2003 at 1:28 PM

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