The Amazing Vannevar Bush and his Magnificent Memex

Step right up! And behold the knowledge of the human race compressed into a single magic desk! Of course, I am not being fair to Vannevar Bush. He is a true futurist. Writing at mid-century as he was, he appears to have accurately identified a big problem and its solution for the people of his future (that is, us): there’s gonna be too much data to deal with, so we’re gonna need a search engine. I mean, pretty much, the guy invented Google. For me, he really illustrates the way logical thinking can appear prophetic. In this, he reminds me of the science fiction authors who were writing around the time Bush conceptualized his Memex. These guys saw themselves as “historians” of the future, methodically “researching” the subject of “what things are going to be like.” Bush has done the same, and what he came up with is brilliant. Of course, he’s bound to use microforms and to have these manipulated by all manner of mechanical operations. What else could he possibly know in 1945. And even though his graceful vision of Memex workflow is hypnotically compelling, I find myself hopelessly tickled throughout his article. I have a hard time picturing his camera-wearing scientist as other than Dick Van Dyke in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Or, who among us would have thought, even as recently as eight or ten years ago, that the idea of taking the organization of microforms so seriously would seem this quaint.

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