I Want a Memex in My Office

Quinn WarnickNew Media Seminar

I can’t remember exactly how I first encountered Vannevar Bush’s 1945 article “As We May Think,” but I know I started using it in my teaching in 2007, when I got lucky enough to take over “Computers in the Study of English,” the introductory technology course for English majors at Iowa State University. Bush’s vision of the future struck me (and still strikes me) as uncannily prescient, and I was positive my students would share my enthusiasm for the piece.

They didn’t.

Where I saw obvious connections between Bush’s memex and today’s internet, my students just saw a big, clunky desk. The image of Bush’s “camera hound of the future” with his walnut-sized camera on his forehead called to my mind the ever smaller cell-phone cameras of today (and also, oddly, Jewish tefillin, but that’s another story), but my students just pointed out how silly Bush was for thinking people would actually strap cameras to their heads. (Never mind the cell phones that rarely left their hands.) Maybe I didn’t push them hard enough, or maybe I didn’t spend enough time in class discussing the essay (I’ve taught it several times since, and I think I’ve gotten better at it), but I remember feeling disappointed that “As We May Think” didn’t click for my students the way it clicked for me.

Reading the article again for last week’s seminar meeting, I was reminded why I like it so much, but I also realized why some of my students don’t like it. First, Bush’s writing is highly situated within context of World War II, and if you haven’t studied the Manhattan Project or aren’t fascinated by role scientists played in the war, Bush’s ethos and his motivations for writing may be hard to discern. Second, parts of the article are remarkably detailed, and if your idea of a good time doesn’t involve pondering the fundamental differences between analog and digital technologies, Bush’s description of microphotography or his explanation of how “trails” work in the memex could easily put you to sleep.

I plan to keep teaching “As We May Think,” and I’m confident that our seminar discussion last week will help me convince a few more students that Bush’s article is the fountainhead of contemporary internet studies. Yes, Bush gets many of the details wrong (all that microfilm!), but he gets so much right. Here’s a man writing in 1945 who essentially envisioned personal computers, the internet, web browsers, Wikipedia, and a dozen other technologies we take for granted today. A man who witnessed (and helped) science “throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons” yet hasn’t lost hope for those people to “find objectives worthy of their best.” Who needs a new iPhone? I want a memex in my office.