New semester, new class, and new blog posts! – “As We May Think”
So for any readers who do not know, I am going to start using this blog for one of my grad classes at UTD. The posts may not be as “exciting” as they have been before (if you would call them that), but they should still be interesting, as I think we will be covering some pretty interesting topics.
The class is called Intro to Emerging Media and Communication, and it is the core class of my master’s program by the same name. So from the looks of it we will be covering a very broad range of topics relating to new media and new communication, with not quite so much depth. We are expected to write several blogs throughout the semester, relating back to the reading. Here then, is my first such post!
Of the three readings we were assigned for this past week –one from Socrates on the nature of rhetoric, one about Victorian England’s love affair with the telegraph, and the final reading detailing one man’s most fervent desires for science to turn from producing the war technology of WWII to producing the technology which would become today’s modern computers and the internet—I found the last reading to be the most thought-provoking and quite exciting. So I believe I will share my thoughts on this reading, and of course see if they provoke any thoughts from you!
Anyone who has not read “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush should definitely look into it. The article was published in The Atlantic in July of 1945 and is not too terribly long. Click here for a public link to the article.
From the intro by the editor:
As Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. Vannevar Bush has coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare. In this significant article he holds up an incentive for scientists when the fighting has ceased. He urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge. For years inventions have extended man’s physical powers rather than the powers of his mind. …Now, says Dr. Bush, instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. The perfection of these pacific instruments should be the first objective of our scientists as they emerge from their war work…
I admit when I first started reading this article, I did not immediately realize the time period during which this was written. I neglected to look for the date it was published, and it almost seemed—at first—that it could be fairly recent. I quickly realized it was definitely not recent and checked the date, and then it began to make more sense!
Even though it turned out that this was a much older article, one thing occurred to me from my mistake: Though since the time of the writing we have much more efficient technologies that do almost exactly what Bush wanted them to do, we still have such a wealth of information that we can never fully consume. Just the amount of reading required for one typical graduate level course is enough to make any student relate strongly to this quote from the article: “The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear.”
Here is another quote which I felt a direct connection to: “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.” When I read this I was still under the illusion that this was a modern article, and I was prepared to agree with the author that this was a modern problem! Just goes to show that there is such a huge amount of information and knowledge available that even with today’s technology it can still be overwhelming. And the idea that we could have yet even better technology for consuming and learning is still a driving force in the development of new innovations.
“The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.” When you think of this quote compared to today’s abundance of smart phones, tablets, and digital readers, it may seem like the biggest understatement of the entire article, lol!
Throughout the article, the author gives many suggestions and possibilities for technological advancement, sticking constantly to what was available during that era and applying it in new ways and new combinations to predict incredibly accurate versions of what we do in fact have available today.
Some of the modern-day equivalent technologies that I recognized from his proposals include advanced cameras (though he did not quite make the connection that cameras, specifically, would be almost entirely digital), fax machines, further developments in television, microfilms plus projection—a technology that is now almost outdated!—, talk-to-text technology, voice recording and reproducing, even chatspeak!, the common calculator, personal desktop computers, search engines, tagging, the ability to name files, link them, and to share them between users and computers, and probably a few more that I might have missed.
One quote, “…For this reason there still come more machines to handle advanced mathematics for the scientist. Some of them will be sufficiently bizarre to suit the most fastidious connoisseur of the present artifacts of civilization,” even made me think—bizarre machines for scientists? What about all the bizarre sites and apps there are for regular, everyday weirdos who want to keep track of “the present artifacts of civilization”? Like Twitter maybe? Lol…
In one part of the article, Bush gives some incredibly detailed predictions for the modern desktop computer, and even many aspects of the internet. Yet what he envisioned was purely for the academic, scientific, and research communities. This man had some brilliant ideas, but even he did not quite grasp the magnitude to which such possibilities would grow… The internet today is a vast form of what he describes, with infinitely more options and possibilities than he posited. And it can and certainly will grow even further still!
“…not to prophesy but merely to suggest, for prophecy based on extension of the known has substance, while prophecy founded on the unknown is only a doubly involved guess.” I felt this was a really great explanation for the way Bush went about writing this article, and an excellent demonstration of how the technologies of that time could be projected to very nearly prophesy the technologies that have been developed since then. And he was so nearly dead on!!
But Bush didn’t stop there. He even talks about bone conduction and other forms of direct signal transmitting and reading. “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. Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to
proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another? It is a suggestive thought, but it hardly warrants prediction without losing touch with reality and immediateness.” I found these ideas incredibly advanced considering the time period in which they were written. They are still quite thought-provoking even today!
Overall, Bush’s aspirations may have been lofty and somewhat idealistic, but he was realistic in that if mankind had not come up with such an invention or system for storing and using our vast knowledge, we may very well have spiraled downward and lost the hope of progress. It is still a dark possibility, and there are yet many people in countries where internet access is not only unlikely but also not a prominent need above food and clean water—but surely the invention of computers and the internet has brought brighter days to many people who would most likely have trudged on in the dark without the ability to rise above and connect with world-wide knowledge, now accessible to millions.
I feel somewhat idealistic myself, just writing that last bit, but I guess I can acknowledge that I am a somewhat idealistic person… Anyway, those are my opinonions on the subject—now what are yours? (: