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Intelligent Machines

Future Perfect

Vannevar Bush gave Depression-era readers a glimpse of technological advances to come.

In a 1933 essay for TR, Vannevar Bush, then MIT’s dean of engineering, wrote a sardonic report in which he pretended to be somebody from the distant future who looked back with distaste on the “preposterous” and “grotesque” state of technology in the 1930s. To illustrate his points, he followed a hypothetical professor confronting the various indignities of a typical day.

Next stop iPad: Vannevar Bush, shown here with an analog computer he’d invented, imagined a day when tiny devices contained libraries.

We read of the trials of the men of that day and wonder that they could have been apparently content with their mode of life, its discomforts, and its annoyances. Instead, we should admire them for having made the best of a hard situation, and treasure the rugged qualities which they exemplified … Consider, for example, a professor in some northern urban university, and let us attempt to appreciate the sort of life he led, with a sympathetic attempt to evaluate the extent to which his efforts were circumscribed by the hardships and discomforts of his daily existence.

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In a sense, Bush’s article was just a way to poke fun at himself and his contemporaries. The telephone, he lamented, distorted the professor’s speech while ensnaring him in a tangle of wires; the incessant clatter of the typewriter in his office made thought impossible; he actually had to be present in the classroom to give his lectures rather than broadcast “a much more finished presentation by vocal cinema.” But the essay also demonstrated the visionary intelligence that Bush would put to good use during World War II as director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (the office’s support of radar research was critical to the war effort). His criticism of life in the 1930s sprang from his conviction that future technology would improve things. Take the university library, the sheer scale of which made finding relevant information time-consuming and difficult:

The library, to which our professor probably turned, was enormous. Long banks of shelves contained tons of books, and yet it was supposed to be a working library and not a museum. He had to paw over cards, thumb pages, and delve by the hour. It was time-wasting and exasperating indeed. Many well remember the amazing incredulity which greeted the first presentation of the unabridged dictionary on a square foot of film. The idea that one might have the contents of a thousand volumes located in a couple of cubic feet in a desk, so that by depressing a few keys one could have a given page instantly projected before him, was regarded as the wildest source of fancy.

Historians of science see this sentence as Bush’s first description of a device he eventually dubbed the “Memex,” which he introduced more fully in a 1945 article for the Atlantic Monthly. From a technological perspective, the predigital device that he conceived was nothing more than a souped-up microfilm reader. But the idea of a personal information indexing and retrieval device directly inspired the inventors of hypertext, the basic organizing principle of the Web. Bush’s idea also foreshadowed the development of intuitive, easy-to-use tablet computers like the iPad. Bush saw the development of such devices as inevitable, and he imparted his vision to his students, including Claude Shannon. Four years later, Shannon would prove that electrical circuits could be used to perform logic operations, thus initiating the digital revolution that made it all possible.

The technologies we now take for granted would have solved many of the problems that Bush’s hapless professor faced. But his accounting of the shortcomings of his own era might just as well be applied to our own.

It may be asked why, with all this opportunity, we had to wait so long for the obvious … Perhaps it was ascribable in a measure to the prevailing social code which then forced all men to dress alike and, to some extent, to think alike. Or, it may have been that the pressure of advertising propaganda had induced a mass psychology which led people to believe they had arrived at some sort of mechanical Utopia with which they were duty bound to be content.

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