Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Our Cybernetic Future 1945: As We May Blog

Jerry Stratton, November 30, 2022

Vannevar Bush: Logical processes: Vannevar Bush: Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine.; programming; computer logic; Vannevar Bush

In 1945, Vannevar Bush told us our future: fast computers attached to powerful networks, enabling nearly unimaginable individual creativity and research; and even more importantly, communications both with other people and with the vast wealth of human knowledge. As We May Think is possibly the most influential essay in the history of both science fiction and computers. I’m almost surprised that we didn’t name computers “memexes” given how influential As We May Think was in science fact and fiction.

There are two aspects of this very famous and influential essay: what was happening, and what was going to happen, both the growth of knowledge and the advancement of computer science. Vannevar Bush didn’t use terminology we’re familiar with. It didn’t exist. The title of the essay was meant literally: he predicted that our thinking would change in the future. He predicted a hybrid, cyborg future, offloading repetitive thought to automated processes, and naturally integrating automated knowledge retrieval into the way we think on a daily basis.

As someone who can no longer remember anything without keeping my phone on hand, I resemble that vision.

“There is a growing mountain of research…” Bush wrote, and “we are being bogged down today as specialization extends…”. Important research had always run the risk of obscurity, and it was only getting worse.

Mendel’s concept of the laws of genetics was lost to the world for a generation because his publication did not reach the few who were capable of grasping and extending it; and this sort of catastrophe is undoubtedly being repeated all about us, as truly significant attainments become lost in the mass of the inconsequential.

He predicted that “new and powerful instrumentalities” would soon help future Mendels avoid obscurity. He described those powerful instrumentalities in terms of things he knew at the time: “photocells capable of seeing things in a physical sense”, “advanced photography which can record what is seen”, “thermionic tubes1 capable of controlling potent forces”, “cathode ray tubes rendering visible an occurrence so brief that by comparison a microsecond is a long time”, and “relay combinations which will carry out involved sequences of movements more reliably than any human operator and thousands of times as fast”.

…there are plenty of mechanical aids with which to effect a transformation in scientific records.

We will not just be able to store new discoveries—Mendel could and did store his research in libraries—but retrieve them as well. And not just retrieve them, but search continuously for new additions. Nor will we have to go to the machine to do the search: the machine—or at least, a means of communicating with it—will come along with us as we perform our daily tasks.

Bush recognized that these powerful instrumentalities were getting less expensive faster and faster. The typewriter, the movie camera, the automobile, the automatic telephone exchange, radio sets…

The world has arrived at an age of cheap, complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.

Most importantly, what was going to come of it was a revolution in how we communicate knowledge spatially (to colleagues) but also temporally (to descendants). The next Mendel must not be forgotten in a dusty library.

A record, if it is useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored and above all it must be consulted.

Part of what makes his predictions so impressive is the level of technology he had to work with.

Today we make the record conventionally by writing and photography, followed by printing; but we also record on film, on wax disks, and on magnetic wires.

Even if utterly new recording procedures do not appear, these present ones are certainly in the process of modification and extension… It would be a brave man who would predict that such a process will always remain clumsy, slow, and faulty in detail. Television equipment today transmits sixteen reasonably good pictures a second, and it involves only two essential differences from the process described above.

And why was this solved for television?

This speed is necessary in television, for motion pictures rather than stills are the object.

The problem was solved because it was “necessary” that it be solved.

Vannevar Bush was successful in his predictions because he followed my own recommendation to science fiction writers. He recognized problems, recognized that they must be solved, and so assumed that they would be solved. He clearly didn’t know what specific technologies would solve them, but he knew they would be solved and so analogized with the technologies available in 1945, such as photocells. That they were primitive was inconsequential. A solution would be found; progress was inevitable.

Another technology available then, and near to my heart, is microfilm. I dealt with a lot of it in college when I worked at the Engineering library.2 Vannevar Bush made very modest assumptions about the bulk of microfilm records in the future, and concluded that…

The Encyclopedia 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. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van.

The photocells of his time could absolutely not read such tiny text. But he knew that would change. It would change because it was necessary. And that vast increase in the capacity of computers would change how we use knowledge repositories. We would go from nibbling at a far library to full-on consumption from our home desktop.

Mere compression, of course, is not enough; one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it, and this aspect of the matter comes later. Even the modern great library is not generally consulted; it is nibbled at by a few.

Think back to John Kemeny’s prediction of a central server with distributed dumb terminals. Here, in 1945, Bush not only recognized the network, he also recognized that those terminals would not be dumb, that local storage and processing power would be a full partner in the computer revolution.

Vannevar Bush: New Encyclopedia: Vannevar Bush: Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.; Internet; encyclopedias; Vannevar Bush

He might very well be surprised at the means by which we consult modern search engines if he were alive today, and by the purposes to which we put such consultations. Norbert Wiener will have more realistic expectations in the next installment. But the technology’s existence and ubiquity is exactly what he expected.

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record.

The terminology is not the terminology we ended up using, but the actions are exactly what we do. Bush’s future investigator is not tied to the machine. He speaks to it; he is not limited to typing—or to flipping switches. The machines do not use the technology he analogized them to, but they do the work he expected.

… they will be far more versatile than present commercial machines, so that they may readily be adapted for a wide variety of operations. 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 manipulation. Such machines will have enormous appetites.

The emphasis is mine. If there is one insight that helped Vannevar Bush recognize what the future would bring, it is this: as computers grow more powerful, their appetites grow as well, and we will have no trouble filling those appetites.

“There will always,” he concluded, “be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.”

Bush thought like a programmer. If it’s repetitive, it’s subject to a computer program. If the capacity exists, it will be filled.

Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine.

To fully understand the reverence and amazement with which people read this essay today, you have to read his description of the memex. That’s his name for what we call a personal computer. The actual technologies are the technologies of his time. The actions are the actions of our time. Bush describing a modern computer on the modern Internet is like a medieval scholar describing how an automobile works. The scholar knows that we have the wheel and that distances between people are increasing. He knows that there will be vehicles in the future to traverse those distances. The scholar has no language to describe how that vehicle will work, only what it must do to succeed.

Bush’s memex is “a sort of mechanized private file and library… 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.

This mechanized private library “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.”

The memex consists of storage, and “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.”

“There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers.” We have a keyboard, and a mouse or trackpad or trackball which is indeed a set of buttons and sort-of levers. They’re used for the same purpose as his buttons and levers: to speed up and slow down the transmission of information, such as the playback of newspapers or video.

Our “special button [that] transfers him immediately to the first page of the index” is on the keyboard, not on the mouse. But it is there.

All of that amazing description is background. The “essential feature of the memex” is “tying two items together”. That is, the one important thing about the memex is that it allows the user (and he uses that term at this point) to build a trail between different pieces of information.

Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn… It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. It is more than this, for any item can be joined into numerous trails.

Bush just described how the web works. And he understood what that foundation would create:

Wholly new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready-made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified. The lawyer has at his touch the associated opinions and decisions of his whole experience, and of the experience of friends and authorities. The patent attorney has on call the millions of issued patents, with familiar trails to every point of his client’s interest. The physician, puzzled by a patient’s reactions, strikes the trail established in studying an earlier similar case, and runs rapidly through analogue case histories, with side references to the classics for the pertinent anatomy and histology.

“There is a new profession of trailblazers,” he wrote, “those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record.”

Not just encyclopedias, then, with their records of static information but websites, with their links between various interpretations in different databases. Not just newspapers, but bloggers.

Vannevar Bush predicted all of this because of his faith in the progress of technology. But is our future one of inevitable progress? There is one genre of science fiction where my advice does not hold: dystopian bureaucracies and post-apocalyptic wastelands.

The progress that Vannevar Bush was so sure of is only inevitable if we embrace the scientific method over Santa Claus, and civilization over barbarism. Norbert Wiener will have a lot more to say about that in ten years. But you won’t have to wait ten years for my next installment.

In response to Our Cybernetic Future 1972: Man and Machine: In 1972, John G. Kemeny envisioned a future where man and computer engaged in a two-way dialogue. It was a future where individual citizens and consumers were neither slaves nor resources to be mined.

  1. A “thermionic tube” appears to be a form of vacuum tube, based on “thermionic emission”. Which doesn’t really explain anything. They’re “thermionic” because they heat electrons on the cathode end, emitting them to be caught on the anode end.

  2. I dealt mostly with microfiche, not microfilm. Microfiche was an attempt to make micro storage more usable in small batches and with simpler equipment; and also to make it easier to update without having to replace the entire store.

  1. Anti-Entropy ->