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Vannevar Bush

Portrait of Dr. Vannevar Bush of Carnegie Inst., Smiling - Photographic Print

I’ve noticed a spate of ‘Bush-bashing’ as of late! NO, I don’t mean George or George W. I mean the man Vannevar.

From the panel session at HT2010 to Mark Bernstein’s blog to the Paul De Bra’s recent unKeynote at Web Art Science and general ascent from various audience members – indeed, I think Dave Millard and Alan Dix also agree with Mark and Paul’s observations.

There seems to be two general assertions: firstly that Bush does not propose Hypertext because Hypertext as Ted Nelson sees it (and therefore we see it) is different, and secondly that ‘As We May Think’ was such ‘popular science’ – getting ‘predictions’ both right and wrong – as to render it nearer to fiction such as Murray Leinster’s 1946 short story, “A Logic Name Joe” or H. G. Wells “The World Brain”. However, I assert that there is some inconsistent argumentation here and some different standards by which we are judging ‘As We May Think’ and the ideas contained within it.

Firstly, we seem to be saying that ‘As We May Think’ is a prediction of what is to come, while other later visions of Hypertext are either definitions or statements of requirements, but this surely can’t be true – most of the ideas in ‘Literary Machines’ have not yet come to pass but we still hold this up as a definition or roadmap of Hypertext.

Secondly, for us to then assert that something postulated before our definitions of hypertext should in some way retrospectively fulfil all aspects of that definition seems way off base to me – ‘As We May Think’ does propose hard linking and trails, but just because these don’t exist in our definitions of hypertext doesn’t mean that ‘As We May Think’ isn’t hypertext’s logical pre-cursor.

Thirdly, “A Logic Named Joe”, “The World Brain”, or even work on the “Statistical Machine” cannot be held up as hypertext pre-cursors because none of these where cited as THN’s or TBL’s inspiration for Hypertext or the Web – ‘As We May Think’, however, was. What’s more, ‘As We May Think’ is based on very real technology and experiments underway at MIT during this time – the Rapid Selector and the Photocomposer. While, the “Statistical Machine” is patented in 1931 (US patent 1,838,389, 29 December 1931) it is a document search engine (not a browser and linker) and I have no idea if it really did exist or if it is only a patented idea; however, “A Logic Named Joe” and “The World Brain” are fantasy vapour.

Finally, the contention around building trails and trailblazers – suggest no inconsistency to me, we have no idea if the linking or the trails are held as kind of linkbases – and we don’t seem to be criticizing ‘Walden Pathways’, ‘Guided Tours’, or the many Web based trail systems.

It seems to me that ‘As We May Think’ is the rightful  pre-cursor to Hypertext thinking because it suggests associative linking and selection by association, it allows those associations to be made and browsed, the ideas contained within it are based on real technology (even if these are incomplete and under different names), and finally because THN tells us so in ‘Literary Machines’ in which he prints ‘As We May Think’ verbatim.


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