Response to Bush’s “As We May Think”

When reading this article by Dr Vannevar Bush, it is important to consider that it was published in the Atlantic magazine in 1945.  He talks about the emergence of new technologies and machines like the typewriter and film cameras, and while some of these machines are now outdated, it is interesting to see how far we have come.  Also in this article Bush talks about recording data and using machines not only to extend man’s physical powers but, “the powers of his mind.”  Also since this article is from 1945 there are some things that I had no idea what he was talking about or had trouble understanding.

In the beginning of this article I found it interesting when Bush talks about how scientists are coming up with new research and ideas that we are able to publish and record easily but the problem is, “that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.”  He further points out that the published information has a hard time reaching the few who would understand the information.  The internet has been a big help for this problem.  Going back to one of my previous responses to Wesch’s introduction to youtube, Wesch’s ideas in his video were able to reach a great number of people including those in his field, anthropology.  Computers and the internet have made it easier to sort, share, and link information.  However this article is from a time before the internet and personal computers, so it is amusing reading from a perspective where the things we use today like digital cameras and smartphones were unthinkable.  Well even my generation (born in the 80’s) was blown away by these advancements.

It was also interesting when Bush talks about Selection.  He explained this by dialing a phone number and mentions that the process takes a few seconds to select each number.  He further states that we could speed up this process by making the full selection in one-hundredth of a second, but, “No one would wish to spend the money necessary to make this change in the telephone system.”  Yet now we have speed dialing and our phones have contact lists where we no longer have to manually dial or even memorize someone’s phone number.

Going along with not having to memorize Bush states:

“Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency.”

Much of this article he talks about technologies used for recording things like the typewriter, camera, and Voder all of which are tools helping extend the “powers of the mind.”  This also reminds me of a saying I heard from a friend, “A short pencil is better than a long memory.”  It is important to record data.  Our minds our fast and complex but every now and then we become forgetful and it is nice to have machines to help.  However most of the time we think machines are faster but many times they aren’t.  For example instead of punching simple equations into a calculator one should memorize his multiplication tables.  That might be a little too simplistic, but the quotation above and various discussions I’ve had this week are making me rethink jumping into all these new technologies so quickly.

Should we replace mental processes if we have the available technology?  Are we underestimating ourselves by creating machines to extend the power of our minds?