Notes for Vannevar Bush “As We May Think” [1945]

Key concepts: .

Related theorists: .
(37) Now, for many, this [war] appears to be approaching an end. What are the scientist to do next?
(37) Of what lasting benefit has been man's use of science and of the new instruments which his research brought into existence? First, they have increased his control of his material environment.
(37) we are being bogged down today as specialization extends.
(37) Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.

Thinking in terms of what is possible with electro-mechanical, photochemical technologies.

(38) there are plenty of mechanical aids with which to effect a transformation in scientific records.
(38) The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.


We need the associative indexing and search capabilities of the memex, as well as tagging systems to allow symbolic manipulations beyond mere one-way, hierarchical indexes to handle future photographic abilities, for example the head-mounted camera.

(38) Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. . . . The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.
(39) The only fantastic thing about it is the idea of making as many pictures as would result from its use.
(39) Like dry photography, microphotography still has a long way to go.


Speech recognition has always been a goal of new media, and presupposed in science fiction as a normal means of future human computer interaction; suggests invention of universal languages that facilitate this goal.

(40) will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record?
(40) It is strange that the inventors of universal languages have not seized upon the idea of producing one which better fitted the technique for transmitting and recording speech.

Statement defining creativity as selection of data and logical processes, and all else a repetitive manipulation, seems like an impoverished notion of thinking, despite his later effort to differentiate mathematical thinking from mere arithmetic to symbolic logic on a high plane; both Licklider and Engelbart seek to find overlap between creative and repetitive thought, giving over much of the repetitive to machines, but also considering how machine operations can play a role in assisting humans with creative thought.

(41) creative thought and essentially repetitive thought are very different things. For the latter there are, and may be, powerful mechanical aids.

Does it matter that Bush uses the term girls to refer to low level knowledge workers multiple times, and Licklider and Engelbart use the masculine to refer to high level knowledge workers?

(41) They will be controlled by a control card or film, they will select their own data and manipulate it in accordance with the instructions thus inserted, they will perform complex arithmetical computations at exceedingly high speeds, and they will record results in such form as to be readily available for distribution or for later further manipulations.


Take on calculative thinking that escapes Heideggerian pessimism, and is repeated by many new media theorists, appealing to the computer as component rather than humans becoming like computers.

(41) The repetitive processes of thought are not confined, however, to matters of arithmetic and statistics. In fact, every time one combines and records facts in accordance with established logical processes, the creative aspect of thinking is concerned only with the selection of the data and the process to be employed and the manipulation thereafter is repetitive in nature and hence a fit matter to be relegated to the machine.
(42) He [a mathematician] is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs. All else he should turn over to his mechanism, just as confidently as he turns over the propelling of his car to the intricate mechanism under the hood.


Positional symbolism exemplified by automatic telephone exchange foreshadows supernumerical uses of machinery; compare to existing Hollerith punch card technologies.

(42) A new symbolism, probably positional, must apparently precede the reduction of mathematical transformations to machine processes.
(42) The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed.
(43) There is another form of selection best illustrated by the automatic telephone exchange.
(44) To be able to key one sheet of a million before an operator in a second or two, with the possibility of then adding notes thereto, is suggestive in many way.


The telephone switch exemplifies a selection technique superior to serial search that seems to be a prerequisite to associative search capabilities, and invite development of machine-assisted associative thinking, which Bush predicts, and are recognized in RDBS.

Famous statement that human mind works by association, not like artificial indexing systems based on alphabetical or numerical sorting.

(44) Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of systems of indexing. When data of any sort are placed in storage, they are filed alphabetically or numerically and information is found (when it is) by tracing it down from subclass to subclass. It can be in only one place, unless duplicates are used; one has to have rules as to which path will locate it, and the rules are cumbersome. Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.
(44) The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association.

Computers do outperform the mind at permanence and clarity of retrieved items. Speed and flexibility following associative trails involve embodiment, which is why humans do better.

(44) Selection by association, rather than by 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.

Compare the memex to other memory aids proposed and used throughout history (hypomnemata; Derrida and Foucault).

(45) 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.

Bush did not consider the cloud aspect of information storage, although he did adhere to sense ensuring disciplines of intellectual property.

(45) Most of the memex contents are purchased on microfilm ready for insertion.

Even though Bush does not anticipate the affordances of electronic devices for search and display, the digital keyboard and analog lever (becoming mouse) input methods he describes are common to both.

(45) Frequently used codes are mnemonic, so that he seldom consults his code book; but when he does, a single tap of a key projects it for his use.


Mnemonics and codes are similar to keywords, anchors, and other metadata tags. Not sure if Bush considers the scalability of this method. Won't the code book become so filled with trails that they in turn will have to be organized and coded? Also, the naming of trails is not trivial, and different people may name trails differently in significant ways; the same person, over his or her lifetime, will also change naming conventions. How does the system handle refactoring a significant naming convention that is linked to so many other trails?

(45) When the user is build a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard.

The world wide web is imagined as the network of individual memexes.

(46) So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.


The action Bush describes may be like those who create input for expert systems; trail blazers are also like news aggregators with community-generated commentary such as Slashdotters, bloggers, tweeters.

(46) There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.
(46-47) All our steps in creating or absorbing material of the record proceed through one of the senses – the tactile when we touch keys, the oral when we speak or listen, the visual when we read. Is it not possible that some day the path may be established more directly?

His final prediction is that input and output between humans and computer systems will remove physical transformations with the goal of direct connection to the brain.

(47) 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?

Bush, Vannevar. “As We May Think.” The NewMediaReader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2003. 37-47. Print.