creative commons licensed ( BY-SA ) flickr photo shared by cogdogblog

This is my second or third reading of Vannevar Bush’s essay As We May Think, having done so before in Gardner Campbell’s New Media Seminar. In the spirit of Associative Trailing, I tracked down on the NMC archived web site a podcast Gardner and I did in 2010 on this reading — we were experimenting with extending a senimar he ran at Baylor University to the larger NMC community, so we held weekly skype chats as summaries.

I thought I had blogged my own notes on that reading but it must have been in our discussion. I am fairly sure my fascination was with the ideas of the Memex storing our paths/trails through information space as something we could share, and maybe someone else could remix. I am not too sure we have really seen something that makes this feasible —storify might have potential, but its a manual process to construct.

In reading Cindy Jennings Nugget on the essay as a word cloud, as a camera nut I was struck by the words that jumped out in the medium size range “photography” “picture” “film”.

This is logical since a lot of the storage he describes is photographic, this in the era of microfilm. But then he moves into talking about camera data and devices, early in the essay, maybe to hint at the extent of his forward vision

Certainly progress in photography is not going to stop. Faster material and lenses, more automatic cameras, finer-grained sensitive compounds to allow an extension of the minicamera idea, are all imminent. Let us project this trend ahead to a logical, if not inevitable, outcome. The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.

A camera worn on the forehead a little larger than a walnut.


CC BY-SA 3.0 licensed image from Wikimedia Commons

CC BY-SA 3.0 licensed image from Wikimedia Commons

But more.

It takes pictures 3 millimeters square, later to be projected or enlarged, which after all involves only a factor of 10 beyond present practice. The lens is of universal focus, down to any distance accommodated by the unaided eye, simply because it is of short focal length. There is a built-in photocell on the walnut such as we now have on at least one camera, which automatically adjusts exposure for a wide range of illumination. There is film in the walnut for a hundred exposure, and the spring for operating its shutter and shifting its film is wound once for all when the film clip is inserted. It produces its result in full color. It may well be stereoscopic, and record with spaced glass eyes, for striking improvements in stereoscopic technique are just around the corner.

Of course digital cameras have moved beyond film and mechanical shutters. Sensor sizes are as much as 1.5 inches or more quite a bit more than 3mm. Bush was seeing the future present in predicting full color; while color photography has been done before 1945, it was not the norm.

The cord which trips its shutter may reach down a man’s sleeve within easy reach of his fingers. A quick squeeze, and the picture is taken. On a pair of ordinary glasses is a square of fine lines near the top of one lens, where it is out of the way of ordinary vision. When an object appears in that square, it is lined up for its picture. As the scientist of the future moves about the laboratory or the field, every time he looks at something worthy of the record, he trips the shutter and in it goes, without even an audible click.

Sure sounds like Google Glass? Do I even need to embed a photo?

But the nugget in all this for me is

Is this all fantastic? The only fantastic thing about it is the idea of making as many pictures as would result from its use.

So Bush did much more that predict technology, which is still the norm of most technology futurists, to probe at the implications. What does it mean for taking as many photos as possible? Of recording not as a means of preserving a memory as a snapshot, but photos as data that might have value at a broader level than the single photo?

From Trek News

From Trek News

These mosaic collages have been done numerous times, each “pixel” in Spock is a single star trek photo shared by a fan. How meta is taking a single picture made of smaller units of visual data (pixels) and forming a larger image where the photo itself is a pixel? What if we scaled that up another meta level?

In a different vein is something like the Johnny Cash Project, where fans created artistic re-renderings of single frames of his last video, and then people could vote on the favorite image for a single frame?

Johnny cash project

And it goes farther down the trail with experiments in tools such as Photosynth — somewhere out there is a talk demonstrating how a 3D model of the Eifel Tower was made from photos of it.

There was a side nugget too in my reading, when introducing the Memex, Bush mentions:

Yet if the user inserted 5000 pages of material a day it would take him hundreds of years to fill the repository, so he can be profligate and enter material freely.

I wondered about the choice of “5000 pages per day” (which is a lot of you are scanning data), but had some play with the numbers. I was curious how big the storage drive would need to be for this kind of activity- someone inserting 5000 pages per day, every day, for “hundreds of years”.

For this, my own learing associative trail went back to 10th grade Chemistry class, when my teacher, with the name (yes it was her real name) of “Blooma Friedman” — she taught me a skill I have used regularly since that time for converting units– dimensional analysis. It’s a method for converting units of one thing, like feet per second to another, like kilomters per century (not sure why one would do it). It really is an exercise in multiplying a value by something over something that equals one.

Here was my dimensional analysis, done on paper while waiting in the Atlanta airport:


Starting with 500 pages per day, I convert it to Words per Day assuming that an average page is 250 words (debatable, some say 300 or more). I then use another googled assumption that the average word is 5 letters, and you get 6 letters per word by counting the space (Probably losing a few punctuation marks) (this is an approximation). I then convert it to bytes assuming one byte per character (yes diacriticals and other characters might me 2 or 3). I convert to Megabytes by using 1 Mb – 1,000,000 bytes (oops, that actually is 1,048,576 bytes per mega byte, close enough), and 365 days per year– this gets our data entering person adding 2737 Mb or 2.7Gb of data per year.

Bush just said “hundreds” of years, so let’s say our poor shlump did this for 500 years. That means Bush was predicting individual data storage capabilities of 1350 Gb or 1.350 Tb.

That’s not really that much these days.

But it was fun to spin this out.

he closes big, with pondering again not the terchnological marvel of the vision, but the impact on our humanity. Can we be better people if we have the means to review even our mistakes? The kind we are told is bad to put online?

Presumably man’s spirit should be elevated if he can better review his shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems.

Does anyone feel elevated?

Lastly, I have always been curious about the title — “As We May Think”. I do not see where he really even hints at what that means. If you fly by it fast, you get a sense that he is writing about how we think, but that would make the title “As We Think”.

Is “May” hedging the bets? leaving room for error?

Or, is it how I heard Gardner mention this week, part of that phrase, like “it may not be as easy/bad/ as we may think”?

Nuggetty stuff, that Bush dude.


Profile Picture for Alan Levine aka CogDog
An early 90s builder of the web and blogging Alan Levine barks at on web storytelling (#ds106 #4life), photography, bending WordPress, and serendipity in the infinite internet river. He thinks it's weird to write about himself in the third person.


  1. It is interesting the way you have traveled back into your own experiences for this nugget. When I wrote about the way I think, i mentioned that the littlest thoughts can lead to memory and you actually proved it by using what you previously learned to help you now.

    As for your nugget, I do agree that he seems to be leaving room for error. The reading stated how some things are discovered ahead of their time such as the calculator. Likewise, Microsoft had created a few prototype tablets back in 2000 but the devices were too heavy and expensive and unsuccessful. However, Nokia produced some successful products along with Android and Apple later on. Although the design for calculators had been created, the most successful ones we use now are probably a lot more complicated with more functions than the original design.

  2. Awesome post! So much included!

    I learned dimensional analysis in Chemistry also, and it has paid off in spades my entire career.

    How long does it take you to write and post something of this length? I just spent an hour on a much shorter post with no embedded graphics.

    1. It’s a beautiful thing, just multiplying by 1. I don’t know if I can have a formula for how long posts take. Sometime I’ve been mulling and the writing is quick, other times I don’t have a destination in mind.

      This one took maybe 90 minutes, but the idea was brewing as I took notes reading the essay.

      Images are easy for me, plus I’ve been doing this for a looooooooong time. Thanks for dropping by

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