As We May Have Thought

Vannevar Bush wanted to build machines that made people smarter. His 1945 paper, As We May Think, described analog computers that captured and stored information, the earliest vision of today’s internet. All of Bush’s hopes for chemical photography have been surpasses by today’s digital cameras, and digital storage media are more compact than the most hopeful predictions of microfilm. He also predicts dictation, and though today’s software does a passable but not perfect job, it has not reached the level of ubiquity Bush predicts. He is also wrong about the form factor of cameras, predicting a walnut-sized lens mounted like a miner’s lamp. The result is similar to Google Glass, and no other product:

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together.

As for selecting information from the ensuing gigantic database, Bush posits the “Memex”, a desk with displays built into it. The memex is personal, allowing users to connect pieces of information together into trails for later examination. The memex is personal and built on connections, much like the mind.

The late Douglas Engelbart expanded on the purely hypothetical Memex with NLS, short for oNLine System. In “the mother of all demos”, he showed how users traverse and manipulate trees of data, with rich transclusion of content. Unlike the Memex, real-time sharing is possible by way of video chat. Like the memex, NLS was primary text, and the user-facing component was the size of a desk.

And yet … Bush and Englebart’s systems are not psychologically or sociologically realistic. Though Bush was writing in 1945, his vision seemed Victorian: a facade of proper intellectualism with no grounding in the less dapper side of human nature. One can hardly imagine multimedia beyond classical music and Old Master paintings emanating from the memex.  Bush used the effectiveness of Turkish bows in the crusades as an example of what one could research on a Memex. He missed the target. The Memex and NLS were designed for a race of hyper-rational superhumans that do not exist.

The fictitious enlightened user would emphasize restraint, but today’s technology can, for all intents and purposes, do anything. The ability to do anything is less productive and more dangerous than it sounds. Intellectually, such a system encourages slapdash and incomplete thought. It does not force you to abandon weaker ways of thinking; it gives you no guidance towards what will work, what will work well, and what will not work at all. Sociologically, the availability of information on a scale beyond what Bush could have dreamed hasn’t made us an enlightened society. Having correct information about (for example) evolution readily available online has not made a dent in the number of people who read Genesis literally. And it gets worse.

Moore’s law may be the worst thing to happen to information technology. With computing so cheap and so ubiquitous, with the ability to do anything, we have overshot the island of scarcity inhabited by Bush and Engelbart and into the land of social media, entertainment, and vice. The universal systems for the betterment of humanity have fallen to fragmented competitors in an open market. The emphasis on mobile these last six years has led to apps of reduced capability, used in bursts, on small screens with weak interaction paradigms. This is what happens when there’s more computing power in your pocket than Neil Armstrong took to the moon: we stop going to the moon.

Recreational computation is here to stay, but we may yet partially reclaim the medium. Clay Shirky is found of pointing out that erotic novels appeared centuries before scientific journals. Analogously, we should not be deterred by the initial explosion of inanity accompanying the birth of a new, more open medium.

I can only hazard a guess as to how this can be done for recreational computing: teach the internet to forget. (h/t AJ Keen, Digital Vertigo) One’s entire life should not be online (contrary to Facebook’s Timeline – it’s always hard to change ideas when corporations are profiting on them). A good social website would limit the ways in which content can be produced and shared, in an attempt to promote quality over quantity. Snapchat is a promising experiment in this regard. There’s been talk of having links decay and die over time, but this sees like a patch on not having proper transclusion in the first place.

As for programming, though, the future is constrained, even ascetic. If Python embodies the ability to do anything, then the future is Haskell, the most widely-used [citation needed] functional programming language.

Functional programming is a more abstract way of programming than most traditional languages, which use the imperative paradigm. If I had to describe the difference between imperative programming and functional programming to a layperson, it would be this: imperative programming is like prose, and functional programming is like poetry. In imperative programming, it’s easy to tack on one more thing. Imperative code likes to grow. Functional code demands revision, and absolute clarity of ideas that must be reforged for another feature to be added. In functional languages, there are fewer tools available, so one needs to be familiar with most of them in order to be proficient. Needless to say, imperative languages predominate outside of the ivory tower. Which is a shame, because imperative languages blithely let you think anything.

The problem with thinking anything is similar to doing anything: there’s no structure. But if we can’t think anything than some good ideas may remain unthought. There is a tension between thinking only good ideas and thinking any idea. In theory at least, this is the relationship between industry and academia. While companies want to produce a product quickly,  academia has developed programming paradigms that are harder to use in the short term but create more manageable code over time. These are all various ways of imposing constraints, of moving away from the ability to do anything. Maybe then we’ll get something done.

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