Vannevar Bush (1890-1974) is the pivotal figure in hypertext research. His conception of the introduced, for the first time, the idea of an easily accessible, individually configurable storehouse of knowledge. and were directly inspired by his work, and, in particular, his ground-breaking article, "As We May Think."
Bush firmly cemented his reputation as one of the founding fathers of the
computer age when he published his essay, "As We May Think," in the
July, 1945 issue of Atlantic Monthly. In the essay, Bush expressed his
concern that the staggering exponential growth of scientific knowledge
was becoming increasingly difficult for scientists to access readily. "The
summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate,"
wrote Bush, "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." Bush went on to outline the prototype for
the modern personal computer. Called Memex, this theoretical machine
greatly influenced later research in such areas as hypertext, multimedia,
and information retrieval.
The imperative of technological advance focuses scientific inquiry, and provides a test for the validity of new scientific knowledge. Big data does the opposite, casting science into a sea of data with few constraints on where it might drift. The difficulty with this way of doing science is that for any large body of data pertaining to a complex problem with many variables, the number of possible causal links between variables is inestimably larger than the number a scientist could actually think up and test. For example, researchers have identified more than that may influence obesity, from genes to education to job stress to how fast you eat to whether you were breastfed. Exploring the relations between even some small number of combined variables would give you billions of possible hypotheses to test. The likelihood that you will happen upon one that reveals important causal relations is thus extremely small, while the opportunities for introducing bias or discovering meaningless correlations abound. So even if you get a positive result, it will likely be spurious. As John Ioannidis explains in his famous 2005 article “,” the problem of searching for a small number of possible true relationships in large data sets “totally reverses the way we view scientific results. Traditionally, investigators have viewed large and highly significant effects with excitement, as signs of important discoveries. Too large and too highly significant effects may actually be more likely to be signs of large bias in most fields of modern research.” But no matter — once you have a positive finding, the web puts the world’s scientific literature at your beck and call, and you can effortlessly trawl for peer-reviewed published papers to lend credibility to your discovery. And even if you do happen to confirm a real causal link, for it to be you would probably have to connect it to other such links, each of which is itself unlikely to be true. Perhaps obese people with less education, more job stress, and a specific genetic marker do eat more quickly than others, but the reason they are obese may be due to something else entirely, say, not having time to exercise because they live far from work.
We are now living in the information age, and many great minds are now bent to the task of sorting out how best to deal with the volume of information our age is issuing. As with many of Bush’s predicitons, I think he hit the nail on the head in regards to creating associative links between points of knowledge. We’re already doing that with tags. Tagging may be the way information is cultivated in the future: “Selection by association, rather than by indexing, may yet be mechanized” (10).
But if your constituency, to use Marqusee’s term, is society, not scientists, then the choice of what data and knowledge you need has to be informed by the real-world context of the problem to be solved. The questions you ask are likely to be very different if your end goal is to solve a concrete problem, rather than only to advance understanding. That’s why the symbiosis between science and technology is so powerful: the technology provides focus and discipline for the science. But Vannevar Bush’s beautiful lie has led to institutional cultures organized and incentivized around pursuing more knowledge, not solving problems. Marqusee quips that the best way to reorient scientists would be to “pay them to care about the problem.”
In the future, the most valuable science institutions will be closely linked to the people and places whose urgent problems need to be solved; they will cultivate strong lines of accountability to those for whom solutions are important; they will incentivize scientists to care about the problems more than the production of knowledge. They will link research agendas to the quest for improved solutions — often technological ones — rather than to understanding for its own sake. The science they produce will be of higher quality, because it will have to be. The current dominant paradigm will meanwhile continue to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, but it will also continue to hog most of the resources and insist on its elevated social and political status. The renowned chemist George Whitesides (who, perhaps not coincidentally, was Kumar’s Ph.D. advisor) in in 2012 that, in the past century or so, purely curiosity-driven science has delivered only one or two fundamentally transformational breakthroughs (quantum mechanics and perhaps genomics), and that, given this performance record, keeping science separate from technology “may or may not be an affordable luxury.” A different way to put it might be that the sort of undisciplined exploration that Vannevar Bush was peddling back in 1945 should be seen now in much the same light as space travel, support for the arts or for public monuments, and wilderness protection. However worthwhile and ennobling it may be for its own sake, it cannot be justified in terms of solving problems or guiding policy decisions — or even of leading toward verifiable truth.
A major refrain in Vannevar Bush’s article is the notion of ‘consulting’ – how are we to wrangle, sift, or otherwise make sense of the growing the mountains of data humans are creating. Throughout his exploration of possibilities in regards to what he calls the Memex, Bush prophesies the advent of many current and emerging technologies: the digital camera – although he didn’t have the terminology (page 4), the photocopier (page 4), the scientific calculator (page 7), the home computer (page 8), credit cards (page 9), the scanner (page 10), a Windows-like operating system (page 10), and arguably more – including the birth of the semantic web (page 11). Seeing how much of the world I know in 2009 was still a dream in the making in 1945, I took a brief survey of the advancements in various technologies as I have experienced them in my 38 years. Bear with me… this is illuminating considering how much of Bush’s ideas have since come to exist:
Vannevar Bush’s beautiful lie makes it easy to believe that scientific imagination gives birth to technological progress, when in reality technology sets the agenda for science, guiding it in its most productive directions and providing continual tests of its validity, progress, and value. Absent their real-world validation through technology, scientific truths would be mere abstractions. Here is where the lie exercises its most corrupting power: If we think that scientific progress is best pursued by “the free play of free intellects,” we give science a free pass to define progress without reference to the world beyond it. But if there is nothing by which to measure scientific progress outside of science itself, how can we know when our knowledge is advancing, standing still, or moving backwards?
Such goal-driven industrial policies are supposed to be the stuff of Soviet five-year plans, not market-based democracies, and neither scientists nor policymakers have had much of an appetite for recognizing DOD’s role in creating the foundations of our modern economy and society. Vannevar Bush’s beautiful lie has been a much more appealing explanation, ideologically and politically. Not everyone, however, has been fooled.
Vannevar Bush's most important contribution to engineering was the
differential analyzer. . . . In addition to this electronic
calculating "machine," Bush published an influential essay about a
hypothetical computing machine called Memex. The essay presented a
theoretical prototype for the modern day personal computer and helped
influence research in such areas as hypertext, multimedia, and artificial
intelligence. . . .
In July 1945, magazine published visionary computer engineer Vannevar Bush's “As We May Think” in which, “he predicted a future home workstation he called a Memex, with electronic screens that would store a complete library as well as recordings and communications.”14