Rich Reflection: “As We May Think”

Rich Reflection

Vannevar Bush, “As We May Think”

Thus far we seem to be worse off than before—for we can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it. This is a much larger matter than merely the extraction of data for the purposes of scientific research; it involves the entire process by which man profits by his inheritance of acquired knowledge. The prime action of use is selection, and here we are halting indeed. There may be millions of fine thoughts, and the account of the experience on which they are based, all encased within stone walls of acceptable architectural form; but if the scholar can get at only one a week by diligent search, his syntheses are not likely to keep up with the current scene.

According to Bush, “one needs not only to make and store a record but also be able to consult it.” This seems quite true: we write papers and do research not only for our own benefit, but also so that others will read them and benefit from our work. We create records and archives and data repositories because we believe that, by gathering information, we can better put it to use. We don’t just want to compile knowledge; we want to use it. However, as Bush states, we have “enormously” extended the record of human knowledge–so much so that the knowledge we have isn’t easily accessed or fully put to use.

Bush introduced his “memex” (predecessor to the internet?) as a way to effectively manage the body of knowledge and address the “enormously extended record.” While the internet and digital tools have clearly achieved some of the things Bush described (speed, condensing information, etc.), I still tend to agree with him that it is difficult to put to use all of the knowledge that we have; it is still difficult to find the right piece of information at the right time, and still difficult to make appropriate connections. Whenever I write a paper or assign a paper to students, the primary problem usually isn’t a lack of resources– the problem is that there’s too many! Consequently, I believe Bush’s article accurately summarizes a significant problem that we still face today, even 70 years after he wrote “As We May Think,” which is: “information overload.” We are still “being bogged down today as specialization increases.” (Which also made me think of a TED Talk I referred to in a previous Search & Research assignment on technological determinism).

Similarly, Bush’s article made me think of a lecture I heard at the beginning of my previous graduate program. I don’t remember the exact context, but the basic point was, if you spend your whole life as an academic researcher, you drill down to a specific research topic, and you push the boundaries of that specific topic, then you are going to have the opportunity to add to the world’s body of knowledge. Things will be known, that, before your work, were not known. However, to put those contributions in perspective, the lecturer offered a diagram like this:


The main takeaway was: stay humble. Just because you’re expanding the body of human knowledge by pushing out and expanding the circle, there are still a whole lot of things that you don’t know. Like Bush’s work, I think the diagram above also emphasizes the importance of knowledge management. If you’re expanding your side of the circle, but no one from the other side of the circle knows about it, what’s the point? Especially if your two “expansions”/life’s research actually intersect? Without a way to manage human knowledge or connect to others who are studying what you’re studying, the vast amount of information and knowledge that has been created will not be useful.

I do disagree with Bush on one point, though. He says:

“Thus far we seem to be worse off than before– We can enormously extend the record; yet even in its present bulk we can hardly consult it.”

I don’t think we are “worse off than before,” simply because we have too much information to manage our own sum of knowledge or consult all of the relevant resources (and that applies whether we’re talking about Bush’s era or contemporary times). As each individual researcher pushes the boundaries of knowledge in their individual field, the circle grows. That’s good. While not being able to access or connect our knowledge is problematic, that new knowledge isn’t less valuable. It just means collaboration becomes more important than ever, and it means we should continue “pushing out the circle” in the field of managing human knowledge. And, of course, we should continue to seek out new and innovative ways to use digital tools to manage our “enormously extended record” so that they work in the ways first envisioned by Bush’s memex.

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