Abracadabra: Language, Memory, Representation


Vannevar Bush and the Memex

Vannevar Bush's image of the future is not that unlike Borges' story of the Library of Babel. Though Bush emphasizes the ability to create "trails" through the mass of material, it is still, in reality, an endless and unordered heap of information. It is also an explicit continuation of the 400 year project to invent a "universal language" that would allow of certain scientific communication (the subject of our next section).

Bush's project is often given credit for imagining the internet, along with the Xanadu project of Ted Nelson (most famously elaborated in Computer Lib/Dream Machines, 1974).

As we discussed in detail, in memory systems it is not the retention of things (rote memory) that is most important, but the inventory or system used to remember them. For Bush, also, the central problem of the Memex is not technical but organizational (he never built a memex in his lifetime, and none of the technologies that would eventually become the internet).

Who was Vannevar Bush?

Bush became well known in the 1930s for creating one of the most well known analog computers, at the MIT Electrical Engineering department. It was called the "Differential Analyzer" a machine invented to help solve differential equations (see Paul Edwards, Closed World p. 46ff for more details). During WWII, he oversaw the creation of a variety of different calculating devices for use in the war effort: fire control tables for anti-aircraft guns, calculations for radar data. He was head of the Office of Scientfic Research and Development during the war - a government office that Bush eventually helped transform into the National Science Foundation.

Bush was a great politician as well as a scientist; we speak often today of "basic research" but it was a concept no one used before Bush argued that it should be the Government's responsibility to fund it. His famous phrase: "Science, the endless frontier."

As We May Think

Bush wrote "As we may think" as the war ended, and the world was abuzz with possibilities of computing machines.

Because Bush was a pioneer in analog computing, his image of the Memex is that it is an electro-mechanical device. Much of what he describes here was yet to be invented, and when it was, thanks to transistors, semi-conductors, and magnetic memory-- it was done electronically instead,

Bush's article is not concerned with what individual scientists know or how they know it or discover it, it is concerned with how we save it, how we transmit it, and how we get access to it.

"There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. 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. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial."

Bush was a consumate politician, and as such, this is a good article to read if you want to know how to talk people into funding your ideas. It's tone is assured and certain: the future will be this way. It laments the slow progress of innovation at the same time that it glorifies the amazing speed of innovation (!?). It presents a problem (the growing mountain of research) and a solution (memex). It chastises people who would deny the inevitability of the future: "It would be a brave man who would predict that such a process will always remain clumsy, slow, and faulty in detail."

It offers an economic argument based in "common sense":

...Machines with interchangeable parts can now be constructed with great economy of effort.... Its [tubes in radios] gossamer parts, the precise location and alignment involved in its construction, would have occupied a master craftsman of the guild for months; now it is built for thirty cents. The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.

Most interesting in all of this, is Bush's image of the social world. In particular, the connection between the labor of the scientists (who are always male) and the labor of the working classes and women. Women, especially, are silent in Bush's world-- but not silent enough:

"The other element is found in the stenotype, that somewhat disconcerting device encountered usually at public meetings. A girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze. From it emerges a typed strip which records in a phonetically simplified language a record of what the speaker is supposed to have said. Later this strip is retyped into ordinary language, for in its nascent form it is intelligible only to the initiated. Combine these two elements, let the Vocoder run the stenotype, and the result is a machine which types when talked to."

The memex, as a solution to this problem is both efficient, and voracious:

Such machines will have enormous appetites. One of them will take instructions and data from a whole roomful of girls armed with simple key board punches, and will deliver sheets of computed results every few minutes. There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.

Topics for discussion:

  • how is the Memex supposed to be related to memory?
  • How is it different from the "inventory" of the arts of memory?
  • How is it different from Camillo's theatre?

"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.

The Memex, as it was imagined,

Head mounted Camera

The Supersecretary of the future

The Memex

Memex Display

Some modern Memex attempts

The Los Alamos Preprint Server http://xxx.lanl.gov/



The NEC CiteSeer Research Index

Giant Brains

From Paul Edwards, Closed World, p146.

Giant Brains

From Ceruzzi, History of Modern Computing p. 39.

Christopher M. Kelty
Last modified: Wed Mar 5 09:37:49 CST 2003