Vannevar Bush probably created his ultimate masterpiece with his vision of the Memex, which appeared in the essay As We May Think published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945. He had been writing about the idea since the early 1930s, but this publication marks the first complete explication incorporating both the motivation and the specifics of the device. The frequency with which this article has been cited in hypertext research attests to its importance. In particular, both Douglas Engelbart and Ted Nelson, both of whom are significant figures in the field of hypertext, have acknowledged its pivotal influence.
The Memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. A Memex resembles a desk with two pen-ready touch screen monitors and a scanner surface. Within it lies several terabytes (if not more) of storage space, filled with textual and graphic information, and indexed according to a universal scheme. All of this seems quite visionary for the early 1930s, but Bush himself viewed it as "conventional". This vision has, in fact, been realized. Although most experts view the Internet as a decentralized version of Vannevar Bush's vision of a centralized machine (and let's face it, a decentralized design would be far more preferable in that it allows for more freedom, more flexibility and more adaptability) an exact replica of Bush's vision is currently available for free. Fire up your favorite browser within a Windows 95 or Windows NT environment and head to http://www.alexa.com. Alexa offers a free browser add-on which suggests sites to visit next, based on the sites you have already visited (much like a suggest-appropriate-link feature for the Memex, and why not?). The most fascinating feature of the add-on, however, is that it renders the dreaded 404 - Page Not Found error obsolete. The regularly updated Alexa archive caches a copy of every page available on the Internet, so that if a site is ever taken down for any reason, Alexa can serve your browser with a copy of the site from its archives. With multiple terabytes of storage including all manners of textual, pictorial, aural and video data that constitutes virtually everything that has ever appeared on the Internet, Alexa stands as a hypertextual representation of human civilization and a perfect prototype of the Memex.
Bush saw the ability to navigate the enormous data archives as a more important development than the futuristic hardware to be used within the Memex, however. Here he describes building a path to connect information of interest:
When the user is building a trail, he names it, inserts the name in his code book, and taps it out on his keyboard. Before him are the two items to be joined, projected onto adjacent viewing positions. At the bottom of each there are a number of blank code spaces, and a pointer is set to indicate one of these on each item. The user taps a single key, and the items are permanently joined ..... Thereafter, at any time, when one of these items is in view, the other can be instantly recalled merely by tapping a button below the corresponding code space. Moreover, when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever like that used for turning the pages of a book. It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book.
The above sounds suspiciously like a businessman on a plane who, having tired of reviewing the latest shipment reports in his spreadsheet program, is surfing the net on Internet Explorer Pocket Version using his palmtop unit. Most palmtops offer a digital stylus as an optional extra (the pen of the Memex) which most people prefer to use as an intuitive, more practical alternative to the tiny keyboard. The businessman could be adding consecutive bookmarks from his favorite sites to his browser, or, assuming that he's somewhat HTML-savvy, he might even be adding hotlinks to his homepage using Frontpage Express Pocket Version, due out from Microsoft any day now.
The article contains numerous other notions ahead of their time, such as;
Cyclops Camera: Worn on the forehead, it would photograph anything you see and want to record. Film would be developed at once by dry photography.
This vision could have been realized perfectly if Apple had decided to be slightly more goofy with its marketing strategy, as it was with the introduction of a mouse with a single button. (Really, what were they thinking?) As things stand, the Apple Quicktake series of cameras are held just like conventional cameras, although they store photographs in JPEG format, which tends to be quite dry, just as Bush predicted. Besides, if enough Apple users decide to strap the camera to their foreheads, Apple would certainly not hesitate in releasing a Quicktake Head Mounting Kit. Pleasing its seventeen or so devoted users represents a primary concern for Apple Corporation.
Microfilm: It could reduce the Encyclopedia Brittanica to the volume of a matchbox. Material cost: Five cents. Thus a whole library could be kept on a desk.
DVD-RAM, anyone? DVD-RAM denotes a rewriteable version of CD-ROM technology that can furthermore hold more than thirty times the data which a conventional CD-ROM can store. One disc constitutes a volume rougly equal to that of a matchbox, although decidedly flatter. The double-sided, double density model can hold seventeen gigabytes of data, and DVD-RAMs will most likely be available for a few dollars per unit in the near future (in three to four years, current date being December 1997).
Vocoder: A machine which could type when talked to. But you might have to talk a special phonetic language to this mechanical supersecretary.
Whoops. Vannevar Bush got us on this one. Speech recognition still remains in its infancy, and although remarkable progress has been achieved in optical character and pattern recognition, much more work is necessary in the former area before marketable products can be designed.
Thinking machine: A development of the mathematical calculator. Give it premises and it would pass out conclusions, all in accordance with logic.
First-generation products of these specifications are widely available. They are popularly known as knowledge or expert systems, and denote huge relational databases used in highly specialized contexts, such as helping doctors with their diagnoses. Second-generation versions are under development at such spots as the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratories, in the form of tiny robots trying to find their way out of a trivial maze. Computer programmers are currently pursuing methods to teach these robots how to learn, an ability currently exclusive to organic life forms. Such an ability would enable artificial intelligence units to adapt to any intellectual environment by themselves. Still, the sight of little robots bumping into maze walls seems somewhat amusing. Certainly highly fascinating stuff.
However, once cannot help but wonder where such advances will ultimately take us. We now have the electronic eyes (the Cyclops Camera), the electronic memory (the microfilm), the electronic secretaries (the Vocoder), the electronic brains (the thinking machine) and the electronic common sense (the Memex) foreseen by Vannevar Bush. Did Bush also foresee a future in which humans are both physical and intellectual cyborgs?
Was Vannevar Bush Dr. Frankenstein's illegitimate son?