As We May Think

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As We May Think ” (German: “ How we could think ”) is an essay by the American engineer Vannevar Bush , which was published in 1945 in the magazine The Atlantic Monthly . Bush outlines the concept of the universal knowledge machine Memex (abbreviation for Memory Extender ), which is regarded as the forerunner of personal computers and hypertext . Parallel to As We May Think , Bush published a report to the American president ("Science - The Endless Frontier"), which recommends the state-sponsored networking of science, industry and the military.

History of origin and impact

Bush sketched the Memex concept for the first time in 1939. He finally expanded a memorandum regarding Memex from 1941 into the essay As We May Think , which was published in The Atlantic Monthly , and which, among others, Ted Nelson and Douglas Engelbart on the development of the Hypertext technology and inspired innovations in the research field of human-computer interaction . In September 1945 Life Magazine printed an abridged version. In the following decades Bush gradually adapted his concept to the advances in computer development: in 1959 he worked out a manuscript with the title Memex II , in 1967 Memex Revisited was published in the Science is Not Enough collection . Bush's autobiography, published in 1970, also devoted a separate chapter to the memex.

In retrospect, many computer pioneers saw Bush's memex concept as the starting point for the intuitive interaction between humans and (computing) machines. Inspired by Bush's Memex, Doug Engelbart designed the principle of today's personal computers back in the early 1950s: “When I saw the connection between a picture tube, an information processor and a medium for transmitting symbols to a person, everything came together in half an hour . I sketched a system in which computers displayed symbols on the screen, in which various information fields could be controlled with the help of knobs and tracks and measuring sensors. I devised different kinds of ways that one might want to be carried out if one had a system like the one proposed by Vannevar Bush. "

Engelbart later referred to this project as " Augmentation of Man's Intellect " (German: "Enlargement of the human intellect"). The cyberspace researcher Howard Rheingold , on the other hand, calls all machines that fulfill such a purpose “ tools for thought ” (German: “tools for thought processes”). For Rheingold, Bush's Memex represents an important link between older approaches of calculating machines operating purely on the abstract level of numbers and today's graphical user interfaces.

In addition to device constellations, Bush's idea also influenced the development of the software. Based on Bush's vision and Engelbart's technical experiments in the 1960s, Ted Nelson designed the Xanadu project, the first hypertext concept. “The memex is here”, he announced in his programmatic essay “ As We Will Think ” (German: “ How we will think ”): “Such a system exists; they achieve financial feasibility; and the world is more ready than it thinks. ”With Xanadu, an artificial universe of networked documents is to be created. This docuverse forms a "worldwide network, intended to serve hundreds of millions of users simultaneously from the pool of fonts, graphics and data stored worldwide".

Bush's stylization as the founding father of personal computers , hypertext and the World Wide Web has not gone without criticism. In purely technical terms, the knowledge machine as presented to the public in The Atlantic Monthly in 1945 has little to do with today's computers, because it is a mixture of microfilm storage and analog computing machine. All attempts to realize Bush's idea with non-digital technology have obviously failed. The high priority given to As We May Think has a lot to do with a historiographical staging that is committed to a kind of "rhetoric of the beginning", as Stephan Porombka in Hypertext. To criticize a digital myth. (2001) writes (p. 27). Conceptually, however, the vision of the information age presented in 1945 represents a success story. Even when the legendary essay was printed in US Life Magazine , it was accompanied by an illustration that shows the actual basic components of today's personal computer, in particular screens for graphical display of Images and documents as well as control elements for their calling, manipulation and storage.


Bush begins his essay with a criticism of previous forms of knowledge management : "There is a growing mountain of research", he notes, but the methods for coping with the flood of information are no longer up to date: "Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose. "At the same time, however, new technologies are available to process information quickly and reliably, such as photocells , microfilm, cathode ray tubes and relay connections:" there are plenty of mechanical aids with which to effect a transformation in scientific records ". Bush sees the basic requirements in the flexibility and accessibility of stored data: "A record, if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted." the "artificiality of systems of indexing": data would be arranged alphabetically or numerically and would have to be searched according to the same scheme. According to Bush, the human mind works quite differently: “It operates by association. With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts [...] “The solution is to“ mechanize ”this ability to associate, at least in part.

To illustrate his idea, Bush makes a thought experiment: he designs a machine called Memex , a device “in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility . "This turns the machine into an" enlarged intimate supplement "of human memory. From today's point of view, the universal principle of linking information, which Vannevar Bush formulates using the Memex example, is particularly significant. "Associative trails" are intended to prevent important information from being lost in the flood of knowledge. "The process of tying two items together is the important thing," says Bush, summarizing the Memex principle.

The link is coded in normal script as well as in machine-readable form directly on the Memex documents based on microfilm technology. The technically established link can relate to all possible forms of representation of knowledge. Bush thinks of images, texts, handwritten notes that can be inserted into the system: “On the top of the memex is a transparent plate. On this are placed longhand notes, photographs, memoranda, all sort of things. When one is in place, the depression of a lever causes it to be photographed onto the next blank space in a section of the memex film, dry photography being employed. "Mention is also made of the possibility of sound recordings or the simultaneous conversion of Language in writing.

With the help of an archaic desktop environment , the data can be displayed and linked: "It consists of a desk [...] On the top are slanting translucent screens, on which material can be projected for convenient reading. There is a keyboard, and sets of buttons and levers. " A permanently stored arrangement of such documents can be called up at any time: "[...] when numerous items have been thus joined together to form a trail, they can be reviewed in turn, rapidly or slowly, by deflecting a lever [...] ] It is exactly as though the physical items had been gathered together from widely separated sources and bound together to form a new book. " With Memex, Bush’s aim is to technically strengthen the neurological basis of thought processes by externalizing their principles. He is well aware of the limits of a mechanical simulation of biological processes: "One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage. " The human spirit is therefore not exceeded, but only supported in the best possible way. Memex is intended to compensate for the lower flexibility in the area of ​​associative links with its superior memory function.


  • Vannevar Bush, As we may think. In: Atlantic Monthly 176, pp. 101-108
  • Vannevar Bush: As we may think. A top US scientist forsees a possible future world in which man-made machines will start to think , in: Life. Sep 10, 19 (11), 1945, pp. 112-124
  • Vannevar Bush, As we may think . In: the same, Endless Horizons. Washington DC 1946, 16–38
  • Vannevar Bush, Memex revisited . In: ders., Science is not enough. New York 1967, 75-101
  • Ted Nelson, As We Will Think. Proceedings of Online 72 Conference, Brunel University, Uxbridge, England, 1973. Reprinted in: James Nyce / Paul Kahn (Eds.): From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind's Machine. p. 245. Academic Press, Boston, MA, 1991, pp. 245-259
  • Stephan Porombka : Hypertext. To criticize a digital myth . Munich 2001
  • Howard Rheingold, Tools for Thought. The people and ideas behind the Next Computer Revolution. New York 1985

Original quotes

  1. "When I saw the connection between a cathode-ray screen, an information processor, and a medium for representing symbols to a person, it all tumbled together in about a half an hour. I started sketching a system in which computers draw symbols on the screen for you, and you can steer it through different information domains with knobs and leers and transducers. I was designing all kinds of things you might want to do if you had a system like the one Vannevar Bush had suggested. ”
  2. "The Memex is here"
  3. “Search system exist; they are approaching cost feasibility; and the world is readier than it thinks. "
  4. "worldwide network, intended to serve hundreds of millions of users simultaneously from the corpus of the world's stored writings, graphics and data."


  1. cf. the book of the same name Tools For Thought from 1985

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