The Right Problems for Technological Solutions

I was also amazed by how accurately Vannevar Bush predicted/recommended many features and functions of the World Wide Web in his article! His conception of information pulled from multiple sources and connected by associative “trails” is quite close to how hyperlinks bind together information online. When he extends this idea to posit “new forms of encyclopedias” (p. 12) it would seem that Wikipedia would be almost exactly what he had in mind. His many visions for miniaturization have come true as well (in some cases far beyond his imagination!)

Bush’s foresight was based on his ability to clearly discern which problems are/were good candidates for mechanization. He writes

“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”  – Bush p. 7

Today, over 60 years later, we can look back at the development of the World Wide Web and digital information storage and retrieval systems and see example after example where “logical processes” (following a link between websites, grouping records or full texts by author or subject, sorting by date or alphabetization), have been defined and automated. Bush didn’t even imagine one of the biggest developments in digital automation: search. [Thankfully, we have also largely moved beyond microfilm, not to mention the 1940s image of “a whole roomful of girls” (p.7) with punchcards!]

Bush also astutely identifies the imprecise nature of human language as one of the lasting impediments in our quest to pass off the past duties of our minds and hands to machines. His call for a simplified machine-readable language could be seen as foreshadowing html (maybe, even at a more basic level, binary?) but when he talks about the need for a more simplified language to aid in information retrieval he identifies an issue that still plagues librarians and searchers (and search algorithm developers) everywhere.

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3 responses to “The Right Problems for Technological Solutions

    • I like that you connect Bush’s idea of machine-readable language with html language. I think Bush’s Memex make it more obvious to the scientists that the management of information will be more and more important. It would be interesting to see how librarians help to manage those information. For example, Library of Congress has updated Twitter Archive to preserve the public tweets.

  1. Yes, and speaking of LoC, I suppose even Library of Congress Subject Headings, and even modern conceptions of bibliographic control in general, could be seen as attempts to make “languages” that are more machine-friendly.

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