Friday, November 4, 2011

As We May Think - And the World's Waking Up

As We May Think, first published by Vannevar Bush in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945, is a mind-blowing work of prognostication on the future potential of technology. Bush reminds me very much of Ray Kurzweil who in many ways is the futurist/technology profit of our times. It's interesting to think that Vannevar Bush's conceptualization of the Memex as a collective memory machine was in part inspired by the horrors of war. I have often thought about mankind's pattern of generational wars in this way. It's as if each successive generation loses the memories of the previous generation and feels instead the barbaric impulse for war that is endemic to our mammalian nature. This leads more or less directly to the thought that if we, as a society, had a collective memory machine then horrible apocalyptic wars, such as WWI and WWII, would not be possible, (since the current generation would remember all the terrible lessons of the previous generation, and so on).

Vannevar Bush anticipated the Internet and the World Wide Web as well as hypertrext, computers, speech recognition and Wikipedia. All have come into being with greater or lesser efficacy and usefulness for people. But have these tools given rise to a collective memory that will end all wars? These technologies have taken strides in this direction, one might argue. The world is connected in a way never before seen in human history. But we're in an experimental phase. Consider Julian Assange leaking all those top secret cables. This creates a world of open information but it also creates fissures in the fabric of world order that can be exploited--it's unclear whether such actions lead to a safer or a more dangerous world. Ray Kurzweil, our Vannevar Bush, envisions the singularity, the downloading of our brains, our merging with machines, and the world's waking up. Based on the unlikely success of Bush's ideas, have we any reason to doubt Kurzweil's?

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