The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not
seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue
to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream
was. — Bottom, Act iv scene 1
Vannevar Bush’s comment early in the piece about the fact that we now (1945) produce for $.30 each hundreds of millions of thermionic radio tubes, which get packaged and tossed around, and yet they work when they are plugged in –is one observation that caught my eye. Already in his day, this amazing productivity was being overlooked and taken for granted, people were already just living in that transformed world and going about the pursuit of the most mundane goals. Realizing that everything we take for granted rests on the smooth functioning of parts, circuitry, grids, networks, etc., that we don’t know how to make ourselves, makes one worry sometimes about the future: how little will it take to disrupt and destroy all of this?
In section 6, he speculates on the Memex, a mechanical attempt to store and retrieve information more in terms of association than in terms of indexing. Obviously a crucial insight in making retrieval more efficient. A staggering problem civilization has given itself is to have succeeded so massively at the task of knowing things; too much is known for anyone to be able to know it, or even know where the accounts of it are, or how to find the traces of them. Maybe the web has effectively solved that problem; there’s no doubt that we have access to the tiniest items of knowledge or human experience today, and that it makes our lives unbelievably comfortable and easy in comparison to all past ages and even to most of the present. The high-mindedness of his article, of his concern and vision, seems almost a lost possibility today: we’ve succeeded so well in storing and retrieving that the pace at which things are invented, produced, consumed, stored, etc., has seemingly gone beyond 24/7. (I recently saw the expression “25/7” and wondered how far that sentiment will evolve: I often miss the days of the “news cycle,” when you pretty much had to wait until 6 pm to find out what had happened in the world today.) All this information, all these goods and services, and no time to think deeply –and hardly even the inclination, as our mechanism of externalized memory reshapes or “rewires” the intellectual capacity of we who depend on it.