As we may think - vannevar bush

First published:

Last Edited:

Number of edits:

This is one of the most remarkable essays I have read in a very long time. It was written in 1945 by Vannevar Bush [@bush] and published in The Atlantic. I found it because it was referenced by other articles on digital garden, but most people focus too much on the technical aspects, like a prediction of the internet or some other devices. However, there are some very keen observations into the scientific work that should have been discussed much more deeply.

I am shocked by the fact that most of the essay is focused on scientists work. How to enhance their results and experiences. The authors is not targeting normal people in the streets, he is just exalting how the scientific method could change by the introduction of new technologies. Imagine the number of discoveries that could be achieved if scientists were better at what they do!

We must remember this essay was written right by the end of the II World War, and science and its achievements were at its peak, especially for physics and its nuclear weapons. The invention of computers is, honestly, a secondary topic in the essay, but I can see why people focus on the predictive nature of the work instead of the meta-cognitive aspects.

This has not been a scientist's war; it has been a war in which all have had a part. The scientists, burying their old professional competition in the demand of a common cause, have shared greatly and learned much.

The spirit of collaboration was triggered by a nefarious goal, but scientists could capitalize on it, and bring this same spirit to other disciplines, such as biology or medicine. But the keen observations go even further:

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.

Why have we developed the idea of disciplines? Is specialization truly necessary? Why is there not more room for meta-thinkers, that can act as that missing bridge? More importantly:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.

This, taken out of context, can be interpreted in different ways. It is not referring at the peer-review process, but at the idea of gathering results from others, understanding them, and building upon. The means we still use (in 2021) to disseminate articles are the same people have been using for centuries.

If the aggregate time spent in writing scholarly works and in reading them could be evaluated, the ratio between these amounts of time might well be startling. Those who conscientiously attempt to keep abreast of current thought, even in restricted fields, by close and continuous reading might well shy away from an examination calculated to show how much of the previous month's efforts could be produced on call.

The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

And this is the core idea that made me completely buy into the arguments:

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record.

Bush is explicitly talking about the act of collecting information. This is radically different from what Ahrens proposes and what made me dislike so much his approach. The investigator is out, is experiencing the world, with all their senses. Observation is the key aspect. The notes are originated by an observation, but by random thoughts or by just reading a paper.

The last part of the essay focuses on the topic that is discussed more often in other places: thinking by association. We built our understanding not by a continuous stream of ideas (see: the garden or the stream) but by linking inputs together. Therefore, the tools we use have to support this process (see: low friction working).

Vannevar Bush imagines a tool that is able to give the reader the ability to link different sources and to be able to navigate these links in a seamless way. Not too different to what we call hyperlinks today, but with the gigantic difference that is the reader making the links, not the author.

Related: Scientific publishing is the largest experiment on backlinking we have access to

Keywords: #knowledge-management #essays #reading-2021


These are the other notes that link to this one.

Nothing links here, how did you reach this page then?


Share your thoughts on this note
Aquiles Carattino
Aquiles Carattino
This note you are reading is part of my digital garden. Follow the links to learn more, and remember that these notes evolve over time. After all, this website is not a blog.
© 2021 Aquiles Carattino
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License
Privacy Policy