A Logic Named Joe
When people write papers about New Media and The Web, they often cite Vannevar Bush's 1945 article in The Atlantic, “As We May Think”. We had a 65th anniversary panel about the paper at Hypertext 2010, at which I was the designated heretic.
My position is that Bush’s paper is essentially a popular science article. It gets some things right, some wrong. It’s cavalier about its sources – especially the very important work of Emanuel Goldberg, which Bush knew and which was entirely forgotten by everyone in the field for fifty years before Michael Buckland rediscovered it.
We can point to other precursors, too. H. G. Wells, for example, wrote The World Brain before the War and tried hard to fund a foundation that would manage an open-source microfilm encyclopedia of the world’s knowledge. But the really astonishing prediction is not Bush’s but Murray Leinster’s 1946 short story, “A Logic Name Joe”. Some of the things Leinster gets right:
- Web terminals will be appliances found in every home – not vast machines serviced by an army of girls armed with typewriters.
- Everyone will have one; is is not only scholars and scientists who need the world’s literature at their fingertips.
- The computational logic in the home will be substantial. Server farms — Leinster calls them “tanks”, will be large but comparatively simple.
- One of the first things that kids will ask their computers to tell them about is sex.
- One of the first things that adults will ask their computers to tell them about is fraud.
- When adults find out what the kids want to know, they will react hysterically.
- Fixing computers is a lousy and ill-paying job, even though doing it well is technically complex and extremely demanding. In practice, this means you seldom repair computers; if your computer acts strangely, you swap it for a new one.
- Wanting to serve mankind is nice, but providing service requires a very deep understanding of social systems.
Why do we talk all the time about [Bush 45] and not about [Wells 39] or [Leinster 46]? What many now forget is hypertext’s roots in the 1960’s and the 1970’s, and the memory of those roots in the 1980’s. The key years of hypertext research coincided with the Reagan presidency, and the field’s origins (a book with a clenched fist on the cover and the slogan “You Can And Must Understand Computers Now”) and dreams (a free and universal library) then seemed uncomfortably close to the old New Left. Bush had immaculate establishment credentials — a Boston Brahmin whose career trajectory ran from MIT to FDR to Carnegie. Bush ran military research; whatever he was, he was no hippie.
Question: Bush lived in Belmont MA, down the road from Eastgate. Anyone know exactly where? Is there a plaque? Email me.