He may – in many ways – belong more logically in a review of IT or of knowledge management, but Vannevar Bush surely deserves a few paragraphs in any history of leadership. Yet oddly for a man whose lifetime was filled with achievements (his Wikipedia entry gives you just a hint), he is remembered today for being the – possibly unintentional – godfather of the Web. This is largely due to an essay published in The Atlantic Monthly in July 1945, called As We May Think, which influenced many crucially important figures in computing in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. This one single legacy would make Bush an interesting figure, but it’s some of the other content of that original article that makes the biggest impression on me.

Originally written in the late 1930s and subsequently revised, As We May Think (the entire text of which can be read online) is not just the work of a pre-eminent and unusually politically powerful scientist and scientific administrator. But it is the work of such a man, nonetheless: bear in mind that it was written over 60 years ago – before digital anything – and inventive cross-fertilizations of the mind are startling in sections:

It is strange that the inventors of universal languages have not seized upon the idea of producing one which better fitted the technique for transmitting and recording speech.”

or

A new symbolism, probably positional, must apparently precede the reduction of mathematical transformations to machine processes. Then, on beyond the strict logic of the mathematician, lies the application of logic in everyday affairs. We may some day click off arguments on a machine with the same assurance that we now enter sales on a cash register.”

Reading the article today, you are struck of course by more than the pioneering thinking. There is the charm and appeal of how the future once looked to a highly educated optimist – the hopefulness implicit in most retro-futurism:

The needs of business and the extensive market obviously waiting, assured the advent of mass-produced arithmetical machines just as soon as production methods were sufficiently advanced. With machines for advanced analysis no such situation existed; for there was and is no extensive market; the users of advanced methods of manipulating data are a very small part of the population.”

Read in a 2009 where most of us are sat at (ahem) ‘machines for advanced analysis’ most of the working day, this borders on the cosy. But the article still carries a loftiness of intent that raises it above the impact of the inequities of market forces on society in the intervening years. One wonders what – apart from flattering charm – the reaction of the average working mathematician of today might be to this description of their profession:

He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.”

Even if some elements of Bush’s – and others’ machines – hadn’t already left their mark, it’s likely that today’s labour market might encourage them to see their life’s work rather differently. There’s a noticeable lack of bottom-line in Bush’s words for a man engaged for so much of his life in either commercial enterprise or in arguing for federal budget.

It also intrigued me to mentally compare Vannevar Bush with Tim Berners-Lee, the man who later invented HTML and effectively gave us the World Wide Web. At one level, Berners-Lee – Joint First in a list of the Top 100 Living Geniuses – saw his idea take flight. The web is almost universal, and increasingly central to many aspects of our lives, both working and private. Without it, you wouldn’t be reading this. Berners-Lee is more than just a technologist: his refusal to patent his invention or take royalties, but to establish a global body to develop standards based on royalty-free technology, speaks of a highly moral attitude.

As an interview in a BBC blog makes clear, he borders on the anti-commercial. (Other commentators have compared him with Gutenburg, drawing the analogy of the web as the new printing press, though this seems to partly miss the point.) Yet he hints at disappointment: that spam undermines the usefulness of email, that there is still comparatively little user-generated content on the web – we go there to read other people’s thoughts, ideas, press releases. And we go there to follow an author’s – or a marketing department’s – links. (You can only follow the link from this piece to the interview because I’ve put it there: you can’t make this connection yourself.) It’s easy to feel that the Web as we know it isn’t exactly what Berners-Lee had in mind.

Bush, on the other hand, had no qualms about commercial success: he held important positions at both AT&T and Merck & Co. Yet his Great Idea – the memex, which would allow us to form our own paths through all recorded knowledge, using speech recognition so we could just talk to our machines rather than learning to type (or learning HTML) – remains almost as remote in 2010 as it did in 1945.  The common ground of the two men was physicists. Berners-Lee sought to marry hypertext (a development from the 1970s, itself inspired by Bush’s article) with the Internet to help researchers at CERN, a European physics research institute, to share ideas. Bush, by contrast, was writing at the end of World War II, and very much in that context of its shadow.

It is the physicists who have been thrown most violently off stride, who have left academic pursuits for the making of strange destructive gadgets, who have had to devise new methods for their unanticipated assignments. They have done their part on the devices that made it possible to turn back the enemy, have worked in combined effort with the physicists of our allies. They have felt within themselves the stir of achievement. They have been part of a great team. Now, as peace approaches, one asks where they will find objectives worthy of their best.”

While Bush’s dream is about finding ways of making all of human knowledge accessible to each of us, it is about more than that too. Perhaps inevitably given his time frame (an era that focused many minds on ‘human nature’ and what we are capable – the era of William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, for example), Bush was also ‘inspired’ by how we behave.

The human mind does not work that way. It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.”

Is it too far-fetched to say that there are pre-echoes of Prochaska here in recognition that trails must be followed to keep them open (almost like wardens walking footpaths to keep them clear and useable)? Certainly there is a recognition that higher-level tools must adapt to us just as much as we might need to adapt to them: that humanity remains central. Perhaps he even summed up the apparent impossibility of his project in a sentence from the article itself, although – as sentences go – it makes a fine aphorism for those who know they too easily reach for the knee-jerk response or the technical solution:

For mature thought there is no mechanical substitute.”

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