Vannevar Bush

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In his 1945 seminal article As We May Think, Vannevar Bush (the MIT professor and dean who during the Second World War served as the director of the entire US scientific effort) warned the scientists that the war being over, another urgent strategic issue – the organization of global knowledge resources – called for their concerted attention and highest priority. "The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships." Technology could enable our civilization to organize its knowledge resources as an associative hyperstructure, Bush observed, just as a single mind does. And he urged the scientists to develop suitable technology, and corresponding co-creative practices.

An excellent introduction to Dr. Vannevar Bush's work and message as relevant to knowledge federation has been given by the editor of Bush's 1945 Atlantic Monthly article As We May Think:

As Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development [during the World War Two], Dr. Vannevar Bush has coordinated the activities of some six thousand leading American scientists in the application of science to warfare. In this significant article he holds up an incentive for scientists when the fighting has ceased. He urges that men of science should then turn to the massive task of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge. For many years inventions have extended man's physical powers rather than the powers of his mind. Trip hammers that multiply the fists, microscopes that sharpen the eye, and engines of destruction and detection are new results, but the end results, of modern science. Now, says Dr. Bush, instruments are at hand which, if properly developed, will give man access to and command over the inherited knowledge of the ages. The perfection of these pacific instruments should be the first objective of our scientists as they emerge from their war work. Like Emerson's famous address of 1837 on ``The American Scholar, this paper by Dr. Bush calls for a new relationship between thinking man and the sum of our knowledge.
- The Editor

In the article Bush warns:

Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. [...] The difficulty seems to be, not so much that we publish unduly in view of the extent and variety of present-day interests, but rather that publication has been extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.

The substance of Bush’s recommendation was to structure our knowledge work – with the help of technology — to function as a single mind may think, namely by co-creating awareness of relationships, and insights.

Although Bush did not talk explicitly about 'collective intelligence' or about 'our collective nervous system', the pertinent insights and are clearly implicit in his article — see this summary.

It might seem that the technology that Bush was urging us to develop is already there — and that is largely true. What has remained as a challenge — which Douglas Engelbart was pointing to and working on throughout his long career — is to re-evolve our human i.e. institutional systems as it may suit this task.

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