A large part of the charm in Vannevar Bush’s paper As We May Think is reading a 60-odd year old article and identifying the technology he predicted. Polaroid and digital cameras, virtual reality glasses, the TCP/IP protocol, cochlear implants, hard drives and eBook readers are a sample of ideas that could be read and extracted out to what we have today. (For example, take this passage:
Is it not possible that we may learn to introduce them [sounds into the nerve channels of the deaf] without the present cumbersomness of first transforming electrical vibrations to mechanical ones, which the human mechanism promptly turns back to the electrical form? With a couple of electrodes on the skull…
It is an abstract of cochlear implants.)
What really struck me about Bush’s article was not so much the ability to predict technology, (science fiction has done that for years), but that it clarified something that has been floating in the back of my head for a while now: technology is always behind ideas. To really illustrate what I mean, I’m going to switch over to a brief history of the microscope and germ theory.
Glass grinding for lenses reached a crucial point of advancement in the late 17th century, and people were able to take magnifying glasses to the next level, that of microscope. And as soon as people began looking under the microscope, it became clear that smaller things existed. What were these smaller things? Animacules? Were they alive? What did they do? Were there things smaller than the flea, pet of early microscopic viewing? Some people began to speculate on this, and advanced a theory that these smaller than the naked eye animacules were really the cause of disease, instead of internal putrifaction or devils-as-punishment. But although it was possible to see some things, it wasn’t possible to see down to the level of viruses and bacteria. So although the ideas of germ theory and contagion were first proposed in the 1600s, it took another 200 years for the idea to really catch hold and be advanced.
Why 200 years? Because that’s how long it took to advance optics to the point of being able to see viruses and bacteria.
What we see in Vannevar Bush’s article is that ideas are able to be dreamt up long before the technology is actually in place to make the idea real. Much like Star Trek’s communicators laid down the path for cell phones some 40 years later, As We May Think laid the tracks for many different technologies to come. Bush was still limited in his vision by the constraints of his time (imagining that large rooms of women and punchcards would manipulate these mega-machines, for example), but much like those early micrologists who saw the first glimmer of possibility in the microscopic eye, he was able to take the limits of the time and extrapolate out to the possibility of the future.