The Most Important Search Document Ever!

My favorite paper about search is an article by Vannevar Bush called As We May Think. The Atlantic Monthly published it in July 1945, as WWII was winding down to a halt.

Vannevar suggested that an extensible personal memory extension be created to help people navigate their own experiences and the world's knowledge base. Here are a few quotes:

Specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial.

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.

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.

Our ineptitude in getting at the record is largely caused by the artificiality of the systems of indexing. ... Having found one item, moreover, one has to emerge from the system and re-enter on a new path.

The human mind does not work this way. It operates by association. ... Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency.

Presumably man's spirit should be elevated if he can better review his own shady past and analyze more completely and objectively his present problems. He has built a civilization so complex that he needs to mechanize his records more fully if he is to push his experiment to its logical conclusion and not merely become bogged down part way there by overtaxing his limited memory.

Pretty sharp thinking for 1945! If you read this paper I think you would understand at least 99% of what Google is all about, and why their company value has so much more baked into it than next quarter's predicted earnings.

Published: March 30, 2006 by Aaron Wall in internet


March 30, 2006 - 1:52pm

It's pretty amazing that he knew at that time how we needed to organize and retrieve information for the best use of mankind.

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