In the closing months of World War II, Vannevar Bush (1945), who had served as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, published “As We May Think” in Atlantic Monthly. His article captured the essence of digital electronic information technology just as it had been invented. He observed there were huge amounts of information being created by scientists and the distribution of the professional scientific literature through print was no longer adequate. Also, he observed that computers provided the capacity to store vast amounts of data. Given these observations, Bush concluded that reliance on print limited researchers’ access to the growing literature of scientific discovery. Further, he recognized that computers provided the capacity to perform mathematical calculations far more quickly and reliably than humans. These observations led Bush to predict computers would be used to complete both repetitive and complex computing tasks (replacing the many individuals employed to perform algorithms—individuals who were referred to as “computers”) and that systems would be built to index the vast amounts of data allowing quick searching and that these would form the basis of computer-mediated information tasks.
Bush predicted information workers would have access to this computing capacity via a memex machine on his or her desk; these devices would allow the worker to access (and contribute to) paths through the vast information stores on the computer-based systems. Bush made great claims about the future of humanity once scholars had access to memex machines. The last paragraph of Bush’s (1945) essay stated:
Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. 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.
Many commentators have observed that Bush’s memex has become realized in the Internet, but the interactivity provided by the 21st century Internet appears to be a more important motivating factor than accessing information which was Bush’s vision.
In 1948, Claude Shannon was an engineer employed at Bell Telephone Laboratories. For several years, engineers had been working on the problem of reliably transmitting information as electric signals. The challenge for these engineers was to ensure the message received was the message was sent. Until the ideas published in Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication in an article that appeared the Bell Systems Technical Journal (Shannon 1948) were incorporated into network design, the reliability of a message was assured by sending multiple copies of the message and then resolving differences between the copies introduced by noise in the system. Because the message had to be resent multiple times, the net rate of transmission was severely reduced. In modern terms, the bandwidth was used up sending multiple copies of a single message. Shannon’s theory (which was mathematically very sophisticated) proved to be very effective in sending data (bits encoded as electrical impulses) over telephone networks without the need to send multiple copies to ensure reliability. Shannon’s compression methods allowed engineers to design systems that are used to transmit messages across the globe in seconds, and to ensure that those messages can arrive at the correct address and be read only by those for whom they are intended. For Shannon and the designers of data networks, moving bits with reliability is the essential problem in information technology; Shannon summarized “The fundamental problem of communication is that of reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point” (quoted in Gleick 2011, 221).
In 1960, computer pioneer J.C.R. Licklider published “Man-Computer Symbiosis” in the technical journal IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics. In this article, Licklider predicted a future marked by the cooperation between humans and computers. He did not predict that technology would be using humans to support itself (as Kevin Kelly and Timothy Taylor eventually concluded—see the works reviewed in the preceding chapter), rather Licklider predicted humans would assign computers and humans different tasks. For example, by using computers to perform routine or highly complex computations and for indefinitely storing information, Licklider predicted, humans would be able to extend their own problem solving capacity. Licklider argued persuasively for transferring to computers those cognitive processes to which they are well-designed so that humans would be free to apply their own cognition to new and expanded problems. With this arrangement, he reasoned, efficiency and effectiveness of problem solving could be increased.
Bush, Vannevar. 1945. “As We May Think.” Atlantic Monthly 176(1), 101-108.
Licklider, Joseph. 1960. “Man-Computer Symbiosis.” IRE Transactions on Human Factors in Electronics HFE-1, 4-11.
Shannon, Claude. 1948. “A Mathematical Theory of Communication.” Bell System Technical Journal 27: 379-423 and 623-56.