‘As We May Think’ was an article written by Dr. Vannevar Bush, published in 1945. He has written this in the pretext of the final months of World War II and the devastating bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by The United States of America. He reflects on how the advancements of science can also be put to such disastrous use. In summary, he writes that doing the work is not important, and advancing knowledge isn’t the only goal of science and research but that we also need to record, preserve and pass on the knowledge. He considers this responsibility as important as developing products itself.
Focussing on research or building a product, he inspires his readers and colleagues to take risks to try something that doesn’t work at the moment, will not work in the near future or doesn’t have a market to be sold, and that’s what drives the “future” technology. This reminds me of the Steve Jobs movie, where Michael Fassbender’s character, Jobs, says that it’s not that the people may not agree with a product, but the board of the Apple Co. doesn’t have the visionary risk and required foresight, and they are just satisfied in building something that the people are already familiar with – “The people don’t know they want it if it’s not there, so let’s show it to them!” Speaking of Apple, let’s look at the gadget and software battles between the tech giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and the others. All these companies release “upgrades” on their phones and “advancements” in their operating systems, year after year. Do we really think that these companies actually found the technology that year and managed to ‘fit them in’ to their phones and systems? Can there be a possibility that these companies have already imagined the phone for at least the future three years and they would not release it because maybe it’s not comprehensible enough? Will they lose profits on ‘simple upgrades’ hoodwinking their customers that its actually something WOW enough to change their lives? Or basically why release the knights when they can get the job done with just the soldiers?
The needs of business and the extensive market obviously waiting, assured the advent of mass-produced arithmetical machines just as soon as production methods were sufficiently advanced.
How do we think we when design a product to solve a problem? He gives the example of the telephone as to how the telephone dial connection need not traverse through all the available numbers but just search digit-wise and attach to the relevant information. Mind-numbingly, his thoughts 40 years before even the Internet was invented follows the same principle. Take the evolution of Domain Name System (DNS) or any form of Hashing, that has even helped us get to Blockchain technology today. So, the point being made here is that ‘solving the problem’ is not the only way we need to look at a design problem. We also need to look at, who is this for, how many times do we need to solve the problem within a unit of time, who are we solving it for? This makes us consider scale, magnitude, form and the rigidity of the solution. Again, this will be cut short or even enhanced by the temptations of the ‘market’.
…although the process could be speeded up if increased speed were economically warranted.
The Memex today is considered as a product that was way ahead of its time, but back then, it would just have been dismissed as something complex and impossible to build. Having said that, Dr. Bush’s thinking or imagination itself is limited to the technological possibilities of his day, in some ways that are natural to the human imagination. What if we had Dr. Bush write a similar article today? Obviously, his Memex would not look like what he saw it as. Could it look like a Google Home Mini? Can we imagine something much more advanced and efficient than Internet and Blockchains that can more efficiently store and transfer data? Do we need bytes? Can we just do with fractions of nanoseconds using photons of light or an air molecule?
To conclude, articles such as this one by Dr. Bush show us the mirror of how we think when such an old literary piece could predict and inspire what the future holds, and how our very own present-day living can be extrapolated to the future if we pay close attention to the present.