The context of the Memex

I think there are a number of different historical contexts that might have influenced Bush’s vision of the future. The most obvious social context that is referenced at the beginning of the article is the scientific efforts that took place in the United States and other Allied powers. The most obvious science effort during this era was the Manhattan Project, but even the early information scientists of the era contributed to the war effort in the field of cryptology. Alan Turning and Claude E. Shannon, figures who would make massive contributions to computer science and information science worked on cryptology projects during the war. The war effort brought some of the greatest minds together to solve practical problems faced by the Allied powers. The success of Allied researchers likely inspired the optimism that is present in Bush’s analysis of the future of information retrieval. Another way in which the scientific war effort might have inspired Bush’s essay is that as head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development he would have become personally aware how much effort it takes to supply scientists with relevant journal material.


A second context to Bush’s theories is the growing industrialization of the Western world. When I read Bush’s essay it reads like an outline on how to industrialize the process of recording and retrieval of information. Just like the assembly line during the Second Industrial Revolution allowed workers to be more efficient at creating automobiles, devices such as the Memex or Bush’s transcription machine allow researchers to be more efficient in the process of scientific discovery.


3 responses to “The context of the Memex

  1. I agree that the technological advances spurred by World War II seem to have been a primary motivation for Bush’s piece. Without being an expert on the social history of the post WWII period, I do know that, in addition to driving so much scientific discovery, it also drove an explosion of public awareness of and fascination with the potential for more peaceful innovations in science (think The Jetsons, Epcot Center, all those wacky 1950s adds for space-age looking gadgets). Bush seems to be chomping at the bit to turn the impressive power of science and invention toward the information overload problem. I also sense, especially in how he ends the piece, that he was reacting against the destructive nature of all the war-time technology.

    • Agreed Post-War techno-optimism is was a really powerful social force in the US until about the early 1960’s. This blog that is associated with the Smithsonian Museum has some fun examples of the unrealistic expectations people in the past had concerning technological progress.

      As much as we may want to laugh at the unrealistic expectations of techno-optimism I feel like we are not immune to it today. In reading older library literature concerning RDF, librarians and RDF proponents had some pretty unrealistic expectations about what RDF could accomplish. Given the slow progress of RDF, the older RDF literature is just as funny as robot maids.

  2. Another context I can think of is he himself invented an analog computer to solve differential equations. His master thesis was about an automatic tracing machine.

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