Bush, not a precog

What I find so interesting about Bush is how not-prescient he was.  I mean, if we had to actually use any of his devices, we would find them inefficient and downright awful.  A machine that affixes to a typewriter and pushes keys down when i speak?  A microfilm reader that scratches dots on the film that some sort of robotic ants or something with photeocell eyes can read and go fetch more microfilm?  It sounds almost like hyperlinks!  But no more so than a bibliography at the end of a book.  He completely missed digital, which is odd because so much of what he talks about is integral to digital.

So… the difference between Bush’s Memex and, say, an episode of Flash Gordon, and the really important part, I suppose, is not so much how accurately he predicted, but how influential his ideas were in getting people to work on them.  And the fact that they pretty quickly hit on something way better is great for us, because honestly, if I can have a personal robot to depress levers as I speak, the last thing I want is to have it use my typewriter.  I would rather have it play piano in my funk band.


4 responses to “Bush, not a precog

  1. Yes there were plenty of parts of Bush’s imagined ideal that are obviously clunky, old-fashioned, or downright silly by modern standards (I’m still chuckling at his mention on pg 8 or the “roomful of girls” with punch cards). Still, some of his more general ideas are still on the forefront of innovation today. Someone else mentioned the hints of semantic web / web 3.0 in his piece and I definitely hear that on page 10 when he says the human mind “operates by association” and that our information technology should mechanize “selection by association” if possible.
    Sign me up for the robot funk band though!

    • Well, on a bit more digestion, I can see that he is attempting to created a device that mimics the mind’s process, where “the next thing” is right at hand, rather than in an alphabetized file somewhere. However, his proposal really isn’t any different than sticking slips of paper in your books and then having a robot go and fetch them based on your slips. Actually, worse, since it seems like the trails you make are fairly permanent.

      I think that he spent far too much time trying to impress the readers with all the wonders of failed technology… it was a bit like going to Epcot as a kid. I wanted more exploration about HOW the Memex would change his central problem, which is that we produce more records than we can possibly use. And since he basically proposes an automated way to get your books from the shelves in a specific order, that doesn’t seem to actually solve the problem. It doesn’t help you process, it just helps you reprocess the research you’ve already done. It is really great notes.

  2. I too was struck by the almost clunkiness of Bush’s vision of the future of information technology; however, perhaps it speaks more to the revolution that was the emergence of digital technology. Bush is a product of a totally analog world. I don’t think I have ever considered just how much of a shift in thinking digital technologies had on our view and expectations of how technology and specifically information would be packaged and transmitted. No matter how far Bush pushed his thinking, he clearly could not step out of the mechanistic, analog world. Information would always have to be encoded in some sort of physical substance, whether it is letters written on paper with pen or punch cards stamped or even a recording on a magnetic strip.

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