As We May Think | Study Guide

Vannevar Bush

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As We May Think | Summary




Vannevar Bush opens his visionary essay by explaining how scientists contributed to the war effort. Scientists learned much while working together on this common goal, and the war changed their focus. Bush notes that the war is coming to an end and scientists must figure out new objectives as they shift to peacetime.

Section 1

Bush lists many ways in which science has improved the well-being of humans. Science has improved people's physical and psychological health, ability to communicate, and many other aspects of society. There are so many different and expanding scientific disciplines that specialization is required. This specialization generates even more data and information.

Bush expresses fear that specialization and scientific progress will cause an information overload. This mass of information will create difficulty in understanding and accessing it. Previous ways of searching, transmitting, reviewing, and understanding research are inadequate. The problem is not what has been published but whether scientists will have the ability to efficiently distribute and use scientific information.

Section 2

Bush notes the importance of information records to science. A record must be stored, updated, and consulted for it to be helpful. Bush discusses the technology used to store and transmit records. He explains recent technological advances and makes predictions about future information technology. More specifically he predicts that all books, research, and other information will be stored on film. Countless volumes of encyclopedias will be reduced to the size of a matchbox. This technology will make information affordable and easy to access.

Section 3

Bush references the Voder which is a new machine that reads words aloud as a human being types them. He also mentions Bell's stenotype which types words as they are read aloud. These machines could have great benefit to scientists in the lab. He continues to describe other scientific inventions. These machines will create even more information and increase the volume of records.

Section 4

Bush explains recent innovations in calculation machines. These machines can now solve some difficult problems in biology, chemistry, and other sciences. However, the machines cannot do everything. Logic and higher-level thinking are still needed because science is more than just data.

Section 5

Bush states that scientists are not the only people who use and examine data by logical processes. Machines can be used any time there is a logical pattern of thought. Bush uses several real-world examples of the usage of recent recording technology to process data.

Section 6

Bush believes that the current method of accessing records is outdated. He notes that files are placed alphabetically or numerically, and their information is found by subheadings. Information can only be found in multiple places if there are duplicate records.

Bush asserts that humans think by association rather than by alphanumeric file systems. Human thought resembles a web of interconnected pathways and happens incredibly quickly. A filing system similar to human thought is needed. Bush proposes his idea for the memex machine as a solution.

Bush envisions the memex as a desk where a person does most of their work. It appears as a normal desk but includes screens, levers, and a keyboard. It contains memory for books, magazines, and other information that the user purchases on microfilm. The memex indexing allows the user to hit a few keys or pull a lever to access the required information. While the user locates information, pages appear on the screens at a fast rate until the user finds the desired information. A press of one button allows the user to return to the index.

Section 7

Bush provides a real-life example of how the memex could be used. The memex creates a web of items through associative indexing. One idea automatically links to the other. The user can choose to permanently link two items. If the user accesses the same item a few years later, the linked item or items will also appear. The memex also allows for information to be transmitted between one memex and another.

Section 8

Bush explains that new forms of encyclopedias will be made for the memex. They will have a ready-made web of pathways running through them to connect different ideas. This information can be shared with friends and colleagues. The memex will allow a doctor to search through records of previous patients with similar cases to find a diagnosis. Bush speculates on how the memex might be improved. He argues that science has created a better life for humans but has also made unimaginably destructive weapons. Bush hopes science will now focus on improving the world.


From War to Peace

World War II was a global conflict that lasted from 1939 to 1945, and most scientists focused their work on the war effort during this time. The war created partnerships between different scientists that never existed previously. These partnerships were both within the United States and international. Canada and Great Britain worked with the United States on the Manhattan Project which was created to develop the first atomic bomb. U.S. scientists who were once rivals now worked with one another. These partnerships were incredibly valuable in helping the United States and its allies win World War II. Bush witnessed how important and productive these partnerships could be and hoped they would continue into peacetime.

Science: Good or Bad

Bush wrote his essay during a pivotal time in world and scientific history. Research done as part of the war effort had led to amazing advances in technology. Antibiotics, blood plasma transfusions, and other technology saved and improved lives. However, atom bombs and other advances aimed to destroy human life. Bush expresses his hope that after the war, scientists will turn their focus away from destruction.

According to Bush, science has enhanced people's lives by improving shelter, food, clothing, and security. It has freed people from difficult physical labor. Bush explains that machines which were once expensive to produce are now affordable for regular people. Advancements in radio and other communication devices have revolutionized communications.

Bush knew firsthand how science was pursuing destructive technology. In his work on the Manhattan Project, he gained in-depth knowledge about the terrible power of the atom bomb. After learning that German scientists were trying to create an atomic bomb, the United States, Great Britain, and Canada worked together to create their own atomic bomb. This project was called the Manhattan Project, and Bush worked in a leadership role. The first successful detonation of an atomic bomb took place on July 16, 1945, at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico and was called the Trinity Test. Bush observed these tests. In August 1945 the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan which prompted Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.

The Atlantic magazine printed "As We May Think" in July 1945 which was the same month that Bush saw the nuclear test. Despite his role leading the Manhattan Project, Bush remains optimistic about the future of science. He does not issue any dire warnings about science's capacity for destruction.

Information Overload

As Bush continues his essay, he focuses on the problem posed by the information explosion. The more science progresses, the more specialization in specific disciplines is needed. It is important for these disciplines to share information with one another. Highly specialized areas of science generate a massive amount of knowledge, and Bush worries that this specialization will lead to information overload. Information overload refers to when the existing volume of research is so large that it is impossible to locate the research or record needed. The quantity of information makes it unusable.

In the 1940s, records and information were filed using the alphabet or a numbering system. For information to be located in more than one place, duplicate files had to be created. Duplicating records on this scale was unrealistic. It was clear to Bush that the current filing system did not work. He believed the filing system must resemble human thought processes.

Web of Trails

Bush feared that vast amounts of information would create an information overload. Bush's main argument in this article is that a better system of storing, finding, and accessing information is needed to make the information usable. This system should mimic the way humans think in associations. The human mind can associate one thought with another instantly. These thoughts and mental pictures form a web of trails that runs through the brain. Bush consequently proposes that information should be organized by a system which uses associations between ideas instead of indexing.

The Memex

The memex is one of Bush's most visionary ideas and resembles the personal computer of today. Bush describes the memex as a personal mechanized library and filing cabinet. It consists of a desk with two screens, a keyboard, and levers. It contains a huge memory that can hold countless books, research, and communications. Bush believes that the memex will be an essential piece of furniture in every home.

The memex's associative indexing feature is unique and essential to the machine's processes. The device learns associations as the owner uses it. The first and most important step is to join two ideas. As the user searches, a trail builds and items become linked. The user can tap a key to create associations between different materials. The user can then access this information years later or make a copy for a friend if needed.

Although computers existed in 1945, they were expensive machines that were the size of large rooms. They were primarily used for solving complicated equations. Bush envisaged that the memex would be an essential tool in every household. Bush's ideas about indexing systems were later realized in the creation of the World Wide Web, hyperlinks, Wikipedia, and other electronic encyclopedias.

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