Let’s start at the end point: what you’re doing right now. You are pulling information from a network onto a screen, enhancing your embodied experience with a communication web filled with people and machines. You do this by pointing and clicking, tapping a few commands, organizing your thoughts into symbols that can be read and improved by your various correspondents.
There was a beginning to all this, long before it became technically possible.
Well, actually, there were many beginnings.
But one — maybe the most important one — traces back to Douglas Engelbart, who died last week, and his encounter with a 1945 article published here at The Atlantic, “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush, an icon of mid-century science.
The essay is most famous for its description of a hypothetical information-retrieval system, the Memex, a kind of mechanical Evernote, in which a person’s every “book, record, or communication” was microfilmed and cataloged.
“It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory,” Bush wrote. “It consists of a desk, and while it can presumably be operated from a distance, it is primarily the piece of furniture at which he works. On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. Otherwise it looks like an ordinary desk.”
Bush did not describe the screens, keyboard, buttons, and levers as a “user interface” because the concept did not exist. Neither did semiconductors or almost any other piece of the world’s computing and networking infrastructure except a handful of military computers and some automatic telephone switches (the latter were, in fact, one of Bush’s favorite examples).
A crucial component of the Memex was that it helped the brain’s natural “associative indexing,” so “any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.” The Memex storehouse was made usable by the “trails” that the user (another word that did not have this meaning at the time) cut through all the information, paths that could later be refollowed or passed onto a friend.
(“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,” Bush predicted. Consider for a moment that these processes — at scale — are exactly what makes Google a good search engine or Reddit a good social news site.)
Bush’s essay was a groundbreaking ceremony for the information age. In Bush’s own terms, the complexity of the world and its problems required a better system, lest our memories and minds become overwhelmed by all there was to know. And this was not merely a personal, lifestyle problem. The worst war the world had ever known was finally coming to a close, and to a man like Bush, it had begun because of a lack of human wisdom. This is how his essay ends:
The applications of science have built man a well-supplied house, and are teaching him to live healthily therein. They have enabled him to throw masses of people against one another with cruel weapons. They may yet allow him truly to encompass the great record and to grow in the wisdom of race experience. He may perish in conflict before he learns to wield that record for his true good. Yet, in the application of science to the needs and desires of man, it would seem to be a singularly unfortunate stage at which to terminate the process, or to lose hope as to the outcome.
What Bush knew when he wrote these words in the months leading up to July 1945 was that the most cruel weapon had been invented: American atomic bombs would not fall on Japan for two more months, but Bush had been intimately involved in their creation and certainly knew their use was a possibility. With that knowledge in his pocket, his answer to the prospective (and then real) horrors of science-enabled nuclear war — odd as it may seem — was to imagine a contraption to aid human knowledge acquisition.