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Reflecting on “As We May Think”

In reading the Dr. Vannevar Bush article As We May Think, I had fun thinking about the parellels to to the modern day tools as he foresees. Credit cards, speech to text technology, GoPros, PLN’s, even tags! Its as close a guess as anyone could have gotten without a full grasp of the digital.

I also always enjoy getting a quick grounding by science, hearing about how technologies really work(ed). I have spent a lot of time thinking in the conceptual in this course so far, so a reality check that all things digital truly have a back-end formula somewhere is a nice divergence.

The parts of this that stood out to me in my current life ventures however, were the parts that spoke to the future machines being and extension of our memory.

In referring to Man (as a whole):

He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory. His excursions may be more enjoyable if he can reacquire the privilege of forgetting the manifold things he does not need to have immediately at hand, with some assurance that he can find them again if they prove important.

original image from article

These concept bare close relation to recent blog writing advice I received from Alan Levine. I had exposed that I was having mental blocks looking forward in the future as to how and to who my curated writing might be a useful, and received great advice to not think of utility first, but instead as myself as the audience. Write to record.

“when you get months, years away, the details get fuzzy or forgotten. I can use my blog (or my photo stream) to tell you what I was thinking about or where I was doing this for any day going back to 2003. “

Which also connected me to the Cory Doctorow’s My Blog My Outboard Brain in which he admits his blog is so important that…

“Being deprived of my blog right now would be akin to suffering extensive brain-damage. Huge swaths of acquired knowledge would simply vanish…my blog frees me up from having to remember the minutae of my life, storing it for me in handy and contextual form.”

While Bush speaks a lot to retrieval of information in this work, he also hints throughout to the importance of the human curation and contribution to these collections.

Much needs to occur, however, between the collection of data and observations, the extraction of parallel material from the existing record, and the final insertion of new material into the general body of the common record. For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute

I think he is really getting to something here, which is that the true value comes from our process of collection and subsequent addition to the collection.  We are experimenting with that ourselves through the very process of writing this very post within this class (so meta right now).

Is our writing (or media sharing) in our domain of our own our true present day Memex?

He doesn’t look forward to just the technology, but also to the future professions we hold:

There is a new profession of trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record. The inheritance from the master becomes, not only his additions to the world’s record, but for his disciples the entire scaffolding by which they were erected.

I find comfort in the idea that there is a seemingly infinite number of topics and people to make connects with through the web. No matter what your fancy, there is bound to be value in your curation, contribution and resharing. No matter how trivial, even for mere entertainment, your collection is valuable, if even to yourself for record. You can see this in a microlevel with the billions of “10 ways to ….” articles to be found.

Such machines have great appetites…There will always be plenty of things to compute in the detailed affairs of millions of people doing complicated things.

Again, a grounding similar to that in astronomy, by the thought we are all just one small piece of a much larger mechanism, but one that has an infinite appetite for our offerings.

Published inDigital Citizenship


  1. An awful lot to think about here. Doctorow’s post about his “outboard brain” has been so influential in my thinking that I remember reading it when it first came out (and my old brain doesn’t remember that far back too clearly). And it ties together both one of those things Alan Levine is so good at and a comment you made on Curtis’s Blog Yawp. There’s a quote whose source I should probably investigate someday to the effect that: I talk/write so that I’ll know what I’m thinking. I think, like myself, you value that aspect of active, vocal reflection. But I think also, like me, you get wound up about creating “finished” products, having finality, having something that is somehow “done.” Although I’m not particularly good at doing it, treating our written/recorded/etc record as a tool for memory and investigation is one way of positioning that process so that it feels—not exactly lower-stakes, but more amenable to meandering, exploring those rabbit-holes and being a place where our own thought can evolve.

    And then there are all the benefits of remembering “beginner’s mind” and such that I mentioned in the comments on Curtis’s post and have brought up elsewhere…

    Curation, filtering (not in the prohibitive sense of school filters but in the productive sense), the human network…Bush clearly saw how important that role not only was, but was going to be. That this is already, to a degree, a reality is crucial to my own view of “information like water.” I rely on that human network/filter to bring important stuff to the foreground so I don’t feel obligated to keep track of everything. As you know, this is a primary benefit of developing a strong PLN/PLE.

    But, as comes up implicitly in Brook’s reflection on this article, what Engelbart didn’t really foresee is how that human network/filter can re-feed into the machine filters. While the term has become outdated, there is a very real “attention economy” at play when it comes to machine algorithms that quantify our attention and use that to order and highlight items in our news and social streams. These then get reflected again in shares/reshares/likes/comments and so on. As constantly happens with Facebook and, lately with Twitter, the question of what such machine filtering does and doesn’t do then becomes an issue. Personally I like the “save it all and let future technology and people sort it out” approach to people trying to pre-emptively decide what is and isn’t important, but we need better and better machine and human capabilities to keep that bulk of data from being useless…

    Maybe, when Bush (and yourself!) consider those new roles and careers, you both are in part talking about the very things that “digital humanities” is getting at in trying to differentiate the old/new ways of proceeding in those fields in part because of these capabilities and affordances. And, of course, the radically shifting fields of publishing and academic peer review structures and the equivalent of the printing press in the hands of everyone is creating new roles and professions. New stars being born in that universe even as old stars die and new phenomena are discovered.

    • Sarah Sarah

      Have you ever written a song with someone? Either the lyrics or the music or both? I’m guessing you have with a story or poetry.

      There is a constant working out and balancing, refining, reasoning, to get things just right to all make sense in a draft form. The bars have to line a certain way to sound right. Then, if you are lucky enough to be a part of ongoing performances of that song, an ever-evolving changes and additions happen at each performance– switching up who leads, adding on solos, changing up the tempo. Its never really done (even if you a polished version is recorded in the studio) as long as there is still opportunity for future performance (even by others- covering/remixing). There’s always an opportunity to add something amazing to the composition.

      Anyways that’s what this feels like sometimes to me.

  2. elisha elisha

    Wow you were really in depth here. I was impressed with your think and all I can do is sit and think on your thinking. I did notice that you added the share button on the bottom with twitter, facebook etc. How did you do that? I think that is awesome that you added it to your page.

    • Sarah Sarah

      It part of the Jetpack plugin add-on features called “Sharing”. Pretty easy to configure.

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