As We May Think, in 2013

I meant to post this week about the forthcoming reading, though after today’s seminar, I’m thinking more about As We May Think, and there’s enough rattling around in my head to warrant a post-seminar entry on that topic. We’ll see how the week goes regarding a post on this week’s very interesting reading.

Predicting the Future

I was struck as we discussed Vannevar Bush’s work that the group had a radically different reaction to the piece than the first group I read it with. My first encounter with As We May Think was in library school, where the general reaction was more astonishment at the spot-on-ness of Bush’s technology predictions (surprise despite the evidence that his predictions influenced the creation of said technologies) than questioning. Then again, one entire section of his article is devoted to libraries (section 6), and another is devoted to what we’ve come to know as hyperlinking and is deeply related to classification (section 7). For a library crowd, who is primed to be thinking about the nature of information and information retrieval, it was an amazing read.

Giving it a second read, about a decade later, I found it even more remarkable. Initially I saw the connection between what Bush was describing and the personal computer as pretty clear, as well a clear reframing of how one might access text (No remote building of books! All available at your desk! Keyword searching rather than card catalogs!), and the primacy of links between information (rather than linear organization we have hyperlinks, metadata, and social information to help navigate the landscape!). I also saw clear connections from what he was saying to digital photography and speech-to-text technologies that were beginning to be more common at the time.

Now, more than anything, I was stunned at his prediction for Google Glass as he described a scientist who could instantly snap photographs during experiments, create speech records as tasks were performed, and generally keep an ongoing log of the processes, all from a headset with a small camera by the wearer’s eye. It gives me pause and causes me to consider his predictions in the last section regarding what can only be interpreted as a brain implant to facilitate storing information and retrieving from thought rather than manually inputting it with our hands or hearing it via the bones in our ears.

I adore that he brings up that there is so much to read that one couldn’t possibly read it all when producing information. True today as it was in the 40s.

What of Libraries?

I gave a related talk for faculty at my previous institution. The basic outline of the talk was why the library is changing and the role of the librarian. It’s here:

The content was basically that we, as a culture, are transitioning from information scarcity to abundance, from linear organization to hyperlinked, from complicated systems of retrieval to complicated evaluation of what is found, from acquiring information to using it. When I read Bush’s article I see that the writing was on the wall even then.

Where the Dream Was Not Realized

I can see where people might be critical of Bush’s ideas, and I have some critiques of my own.

Access and Copyright: Though my critiques are less with Bush as a thinker and more with what we did with his ideas. Primarily my issue is that of ownership of information. Bush imagined a future in which every person would have their own library, where the cost of acquiring information (in financial terms–he didn’t address the cognitive work of building a collection) was minimized. That has not been the case. The closest I can see to this is in the ebook market. If you have an extensive collection of ebooks (as I do), you likely don’t own them. If your ebook reader is associated with any of the mainstream providers, you essentially have a leasing agreement for your ebooks. There are terms of service agreements that you might be violating if you share them, and you can’t move ebooks between competing devices. Further, that’s only true for the books you buy. To have an entire collection of works as Bush imagines, you probably have to be affiliated with an academic library, and then there are limits to what you might have access to depending on organizational size and budget, vendor arrangements, or the fact that not everything is digitized. Even when you have full access to an academic library, some materials have restrictions on how many people may view them at the same time, and notes you make on ebooks, for example, are only persistent if you create an account. All of that to say we’ve come so far, but not yet gotten to Bush’s idealized state. (As an aside, in seminar, I brought up Cory Doctorow and his approach to open information and DRM free works, if you’re interested.)

Meaningful Links: We’ve all seen the power of linking on the web, of the vast, interesting information you can find due to friends on social networks sharing links. What I find saddest in the realization of Bush’s vision is that though we created the basic link making system, it lacks some of the depth of what he described. If I share a link on pinboard, for example, I have to be intentional enough to include text and tags to explain why. And in those shared links I hardly ever think to reference another site I’ve seen that’s relevant. I would love to annotate files on my hard drive, Google Drive, or Dropbox, to explain why I’m keeping a given file, what stage it’s in, or what it’s connected to, but the best hack I’ve found to achieve this is to put the file in an Evernote note with a description, which is hardly a good file saving system. I’m always posting professional links to my PLN on Twitter or Facebook, but they’re barely contextualized in 140 characters, and certainly not tying into something greater. And as much as I learn from my colleagues who likewise share links, I often long for something to tie together the big themes. So, I think, I really am just pining for the “new profession of trail blazers, those who… [establish] useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record” in a deeper way than we’ve yet seen.

All of that to say, though I might have a few criticisms, I find Vannevar Bush to be amazing in his foresight and cultural impact. In so many ways he was spot on, and our world would likely look very different if we hadn’t had his work as part of the larger cultural discussion. I look forward to reading As We May Think in the years to come, as new technologies emerge and things that seem like magic today become more commonplace.

My name is Lauren Pressley. This is where I think out loud, document what I'm doing, and share the things that I like. I'm the Director for Learning Environments at Virginia Tech University Libraries and author of a few books. This blog focuses on libraries, education, information, & the internet. When not at work or blogging, I spend most of my time with John and our son, Leif.

6 thoughts on “As We May Think, in 2013

  1. All that and I neglected to say: I do think blog comments could offer more of the deep linking that Bush described, at least when the content is published in blog format. As someone who was an early adopter of blogs, I watched the rich, deeply linked and “trackbacked” conversations take place and found that form of intellectual conversation to be quite powerful. I’ve also watched as Twitter and Facebook (and other social sites) have made it easier to just link to something, or give it minimal context, and let it go at that. Further, the conversation becomes so distributed that it’s hard to follow all the threads (there can be those on the blog, multiple threads on Twitter, others on Facebook, etc). I don’t know that it’s bad we’ve transitioned in this way, but I do wish there was a way to “braid” the threads together (a la Janet Murray).

  2. Thanks for reminding us of all that Bush did foresee. We were perhaps a bit too rough on him during the seminar yesterday?
    On Meaningful Links: I share your sense of urgency about this! I find Zotero to be very powerful in terms of being able to customize the tagging and related items. I also add notes to the record when I add something, so I have some context for it if it gets lost for a while ;-). The “Library” concept definitely helps keep multiple projects organized as well. I also use OneNote in much the way you describe your use of Evernote. But in the end I’m still heavily dependent on my own memory to keep track of what’s where. I think part of the problem is not always knowing when I first find something what I want to do with it down the road. I try to tag or situate it in such a way that I can find it (or even remember that I have it!) later on, but it’s far from a perfect system. Maybe the operator side of the memex needs a processor upgrade?

  3. Lauren, I heartily agree with what you’re saying, and I do think access and links are two gigantic hurdles that we have to overcome to get into whatever this next era is going to be. I also had a “whoa” moment re: Google Glass while reading Bush’s piece.

    Anyway, to chime in on the conversation you and Amy are having, I came across two pieces that just connected in my mind from your post and Amy’s comment.

    First, re: memory and filing, I wonder to what extent Google’s recent implementation of a more context-sensitive algorithm that can take complex phrases and questions from users and return meaningful results will springboard the industry into more sophisticated personal data management tools. For example, if all of our files were in a personal cloud that was able to handle contextual queries from us to search our extant data, might that begin to address the issue? And to what extent would it even be necessary for us to actively manage and tag and file if we had more sophisticated abilities?
    (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/26/google-changes-search-to-handle-more-complex-queries/?ref=technology)

    And that connection led me to another piece I stumbled on from an author asserting that technology is making us smarter and more adept at leveraging information rather than duller and incapable of remembering things
    (http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/09/24/one-on-one-clive-thompson-smarter-than-you-think/?ref=technology) because it’s an extension of the evolutionary tactic of humans to process and store information socially. I’m not sure I had ever considered my use of Google in that way – as an extension of what would be a natural tendency to scaffold my memory from others and from manual devices of my own creation (like my monitor covered in post-it notes), but that added an interesting flavor to my meandering thoughts about information management and Bush, especially in light of your post that encapsulated those points for me into access and management.

    I’m honestly not entirely sure what I think about all this, but I think your point about Bush’s being so on point about so much, and that he is STILL ahead of where we are today in terms of his simple assumption that yes, information would be available and yes, it would be readily sort-able in a plethora of ways is an excellent way to shift our perceptions – yeah, it might be retrospectively amusing that he imagined storing 100 pictures on his forehead camera idea as the pinnacle of technological achievement (given our unfathomable advances in storage technology) BUT, Bush took as a given something that we haven’t been able to get a handle on to this day. As I said above, I think there’s evidence that we’re making leaps, but it really was interesting to visit this essay and consider that he laid out an agenda so ambitious that we aren’t there in 2013.

  4. I have just discovered your little online cubby here, and I wanted to say that I am very happy that I did. As an LIS student, I find many of your thoughts insightful and thought provoking and I really appreciate you spending the time to share them here. Thanks.

  5. The NYT blog posts about the new Google search algorithm and the Clive Thompson interview highlight for me how interactive memory is and how intrinsically social learning is for humans. The latter is something I understand, but still find myself tripping over – because we also think of intellect as an individual quality (just as “mind” is what makes us unique). Thinking about Wiener and Licklider, who both saw the potential for computers and networks to interact with people (not just be used by them) in transformative ways, I’m still struggling with the implications of those transformations. Like you, Claire, I’m not sure what I think about all of this! I find “tip of the tongue” syndrome disconcerting even as I appreciate the web’s uncanny ability (which gets better all the time, thank you new algorithm!) to help me locate the missing detail.

  6. Perhaps it is all about the definition? Our own limitations in how we define and describe things – this is exactly what holds us back as we try to understand or make sense of more “complexity” that we encounter. How does both our desperation and “success” in putting things in our own flawed framework of what “intellect” means or “learning” means, etc. The ultimate necessary/ironic evil? I think about the book, Animal Wise. How I think B.F. Skinner is an idiot and that he was the cause of so many cultural beliefs around the apparent lack of intelligence of animals. It was all about how he defined intelligence. Every time an animal (parrot for instance!) was observed demonstrating “intelligence” the behaviorists changed the definition. OK, I digress… My point is this: How do our reasoning capabilities that are busy at trying to comprehend or articulate or categorize or define limit our actual ability to comprehend?

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