In Defense of the Past, to Benefit the Future

I am currently doing my doctoral research in information science, more specifically in the area around ubiquitous and pervasive technologies and learning.  As I have worked through this process I realize I keep coming back to an Atlantic Monthly article, written in 1945, by Vannaver Bush that I first read almost ten years ago.  In the article Bush is discussing innovative concepts; including hypertext, social user tagging, digital photography, and even early notions of ubiquitous technology-mediated interaction. More on this later, now let me turn to the impetus for this blog post.

I was recently reading an article As We May Learn: Revisiting Bush in Campus Technology magazine.  The article references Vannaver Bush’s seminal 1945 Atlantic Monthly article As We May Think to make a trite point about how educators essentially need to stop whining, look forward, and embrace new educational technology.  The author of the article also uses the ill-conceived and overused term “digital natives” but I will refrain from a discuss of my disdain for the use of that term.  In regard to the campus technology article, I do agree with the implicit and underlying arguments about the inability for higher education to clearly demonstrate and “improve learning”, or the ability to respond quickly to changing priorities, but honestly these claims are not new.  However, if you take a closer look at institutions of higher education, I think most would agree that they are sincerely interested in changing and are doing so.  It is also also safe to say that ALL of higher education is not as bad as the one instructor, or one class, that is singled out by example.  I agree that some ARE actually that bad, but not too worry, because a few bad apples do not ruin the entire barrel and those few bad apples are easily and often recognized and removed from the barrel.  But I digress, the real point of this blog post is to defend Bush’s important article and to illustrate its continued value and brilliance.

The campus technology article seriously misses the point of Bush’s article.  The author uses Bush’s article to shun the past as a nuisance and states “all he [Bush] was talking about was a way to intelligently and efficiently sift through ‘the record.’ The ‘record,’ for him, was printed information, or, as we might see it now, knowledge that was already finished…His memex worked in the past tense.” he continues “Educators at all levels have not understood that learning is no longer about the past, as Bush’s memex was.  It is no longer primarily about what has been said and done and described and proved, but, importantly, is about what is being said, and what is being done, and what is being described and what hasnot yet been proven.” I think what the author fails to admit, in order to make his criticisms about higher education, is that bush is in fact talking about ‘the new’ and about making new connections from and for ‘the record’ (i.e., Internet, society, scholarship), that were not apparent before. The campus technology author loseWeight Exercises site of just how innovative the Bush article was at the time, and still is.  Bush wrote the article in 1945, in which he discusses ideas and concepts that are still innovate today.  That one article was, in part, responsible for the conceptual framework and development of hypertext, which is the foundation of what makes the web possible, yes even web 2.0.  He was imagining news ways of interacting and understanding the essence of ubiquitous and pervasive computing environments with more natural affordances, and physically embodied interactivity.  Most importantly, Vannaver Bush seemed to be foreshadowing our 21st century information and technology challenges some 60 years earlier.  The campus technology author fails to realize that information has no past, once information or data is acted upon it becomes current and new because the learner is creating and constructing new connections and meaning from ‘the record’, and adding to it.  This is not simply finding information from the past, but searching for information, and connecting information, to create new knowledge and meaning.  These are the skills that students need to learn in order to synthesize, problem-solve, an most importantly to think creatively and critically.

Moreover, ‘the record’, as Bush called it, IS about “what is being said, and what is being done, and what is being described and what has not yet been proven.” This is the essential point that the author of the campus technology article fails to grasp.  By condemning the past, he is limiting future.  It is the exponentially growing sea of information that scholars, practitioners, and students must work through, and from, in order to to create products and develop innovative ideas that future generations can stand upon to allow theory and action to move forward.  So I think Bush was correct when he stated in his seminal 1945 article that “Science has provided the swiftest communication (technology) between individuals; it has provided a record of ideas and has enabled man to manipulate and to make extracts from that record so that knowledge evolves and endures throughout the life of a race rather than that of an individual.” (Bush, 1945)… Doesn’t really sound like bush is talking about the past does it!?

I close by providing a few links to online resources that I think better honors Vannaver Bush and his contributions by putting him in the company of other pioneers such as Doug Engelbart, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, and Marc Andreesen.


Campus Technology Article:

As We May Think, Atlantic Monthly (Vannaver Bush, 1945):

iBiblio, Internet Pioneers:

Blog- Theory and Research in HCI:

Nyce, J. & Kahn, P. (1991). From Memex to Hypertext: Vannevar Bush and the Mind’s Machine. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.


Mark Millard

Mark Millard is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Information Science at Indiana University. His research interests include; educational and social informatics, HCI (ubiquitous and pervasive computing), computer-mediated communication (CMC), ICT literacy, and research methods.